With a new head coach, several first-time players, and a star coming off of a year-long ACL injury, Team Canada did not have a “gold or bust” mentality coming into the 2022 FIBA World Cup. They had an expectation to simply grow as a program and live with the results.
So far, the results have been overwhelmingly positive. After starting the tournament 3-0, they finished the group stage 4-1, earning the No. 2 seed in Group B, putting themselves in a good position for the quarterfinals, where they were guaranteed to draw the 3rd or 4th seed from Group A. The draw led to a matchup against Puerto Rico on Thursday morning — the 17th ranked team, who went 2-3 in the group stage — but it also put them on the same side of the bracket as the favourites United States if they were to move onto the Semi Finals.
And move onto the Semi Finals they did, bouncing Puerto Rico from the tournament with a 79-60 win that the Canadians dominated from start to finish, setting them up for a matchup against the USA on Friday morning.
Canada jumped out to a 29-11 lead early in the second quarter, driven by Kia Nurse coming to life on the offensive end and looking the best she has all tournament. Nurse hit three 3s up to that point and ended the game with a team-high 17 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists and a tournament-high 23 minutes. After struggling offensively for the first five games of the tournament — and with a matchup against the USA on the horizon, where the Canadians will need every tool in their toolbox to compete — Nurse rounding into form and hitting shots is a welcomed sight.
“The body feels good. You know, it’s been a really long road and there were lots of ups and downs and good times and bad times. But I think it’s been really rewarding just to be out there and just to run around and shoot threes and do things that I think sometimes when you’re in a recovery process you kind of take for granted. The fact that 11 months ago I couldn’t walk or I couldn’t get on a court, I couldn’t tie my shoes, couldn’t get out of bed to go to the bathroom. And now you’re kind of in this place where you can do amazing things,” Nurse said after the game. “When you’re a professional athlete, sometimes there’s a lot of pressure and there’s a lot of love-hate for the game. Right now, it’s just fun. Everything about basketball right now is really fun, and that’s the joy you have when you’re like four or five starting to play the game: That’s the joy that I have right now.”
Canada continued to stay hot from three, hitting 7 in the first half alone, with Nurse scoring 12 and Bridget Carleton scoring 9 in the opening half. Canada jumped out to a 58-33 lead with 3:27 left in the third quarter after Laeticia Amihere got her own rebound and put it back for the score, and they didn’t look back, even playing the end of their bench in order to buy the starters some much needed rest with another game coming the next day.
In fact, it was those three that led the scoring for Team Canada, with Carleton picking up where she left off the last three games of the tournament, with 15-7-3, and Amihere continuing to be aggressive and unpredictable on both ends of the floor, finishing with 12-3-0 with a block and a steal. All three of them will need to be great if they want to have a chance against the United States.
To showcase just how dominant the Canadians were, they didn’t give up a free-throw until 3 minutes into the third quarter, or 23 minutes into the game, and they turned the ball over just 4 times in the entire game. Meanwhile, they scored 16 points off of turnovers and 20 second chance points.
With the win, Canada advances to a Semi Final for the first time at an international competition since 1986, and they will have two opportunities to medal for the first time since winning bronze in ‘86.
“This is a great accomplishment for Canada basketball. It’s been a really long time coming and getting to this point I think it speaks a lot to those who have come before us to help us grow the game in Canada, help us continue to gradually climb the ladder as we have in the last number of years,” Nurse said after the game. “We’ve had a lot of change this year: new coaching staff, new players playing in positions that they probably haven’t played in and so it’s nice to see the unpredictability that we’ve got and it’s a good way to continue to keep working.”
The first of those two chances comes against the United States on Friday morning. The United States, who are full of WNBA players, beat the same Puerto Rico team 106-42 on the second match day, so they are not going to be easy to take down.
“It’s very different playing against Puerto Rico, with all due respect, than to play against USA,” Team Canada head coach Victor Lapena said. “USA is playing in a different tournament, on a different planet. They’re playing Space Jam.”
Still, the Canadians are happy to just get to the point after losing in the quarterfinals of major tournaments several times in the past. They know how hard it is just to get to the World Cup and especially to get to the Semi Finals, so they aren’t taking anything for granted.
And yet, while they admit how talented Team USA is, Canada is going to focus on themselves and try to compete to show the world just how far the program has come.
“The U.S. is an extremely talented team and there’s no doubt about that. But it’s not necessarily always about focusing on what we need to do to make sure that we stop them — obviously that’s going to be a piece of it — but it’s focusing on ourselves as well. And going into every game and understanding basketball is a game for us. We’re gonna go on our runs, they’re gonna go on their runs, it’s gonna be punch for punch and you know squaring up and a war but when you have a little bit of familiarity that helps but you have to have confidence in yourself in every single game,” Nurse said.
“I play against these guys every day. So I feel good about it, give ourselves a chance, have some confidence!”
Canada plays the United States in the Semi Final on Friday, September 30th at 3:00am EST.