On September 11, 2015, the Canadian senior men’s basketball team met Venezuela in a semifinal game at the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship in Mexico City. The stakes were as high as possible: Win and Canada would be off to their first Olympic Games since 2000. Lose and they would participate in a last-chance qualifying tournament, something the Canadians had not had much success with in the past.
Despite beating Venezuela by 20-points during the group stage of the tournament, with NBA players like Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Olynyk, Dwight Powell and Cory Joseph all playing, they lost to Venezuela when it mattered in one of the biggest upsets in Canadian basketball history. And to make matters worse, the game ended 79-78, with one point separating Canada from the Olympics and what would ultimately be a loss in the last-chance tournament and another disappointing Olympic qualification cycle.
But the Canadian program has done a lot of growing since then. And perhaps just as importantly, the Canadian basketball scene — from the grassroots level to the college level to the NBA —has done a lot of growing as well. The nation has more depth than ever, with 26 players representing Canada this cycle (per the broadcast), and seven of the 12 on this current roster having U SPORTS experience, developing right here in Canada.
It all culminated with a 94-56 win over Venezuela in Edmonton, clinching Canada’s spot in the 2023 FIBA World Cup, where they will have a chance to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games. With the win, Canada improved their record to a dominant 9-0 this qualification cycle and a +304 point differential, becoming the first team from the Americas to qualify for next summer’s world cup.
“The qualification, that’s what we were here for,” associate head coach Nate Bjorkgren said. “We’ve taken every game one game at a time. All of our focus here has been on Venezuela for the last couple of months and our guys showed up and played that way today.”
“We said we wanted to come out and hit first and hit again and again and they did. I love coaching this team. I really do. They just kept coming at them. It’s an honour to coach for this country and this team and it’s really fun to watch.”
Thomas Scrubb led the way in the first half against Venezuela, scoring 10-points and a steal and a block to help Canada jump out to a 46-31 lead at half. Starting point guard Kenny Chery also helped set a tone early, with 6 assists, 2 steals, and 0 turnovers in the opening half, picking up the opposing guards full court and winning the effort battle early on. In fact, Canada led the entire game, picking up steam as it went along and the bench got a chance to shine, outscoring Venezuela 54-28 themselves.
In the second half, it was all Kassius Robertson, who scored 16 points, 2 assists and 2 steals, including hitting 3/3 from three. But the Canadians got an all-around scoring effort, with five different players in the double-digits, including Scrubb, Robertson and Cherry. It was fitting given that Phil and Thomas Scrubb and Roberston were the only three players to play in all 9 qualifying games this qualifying cycle — stewards of the program who pick up the phone every time Canada comes calling.
Overall, Canada out-rebounded the Venezuelan’s 54-26, including 20 offensive rebounds for 17 second-chance points. They shot 56 percent from the floor and assisted on 18 of their 36 made baskets. Plus, Canada forced 15 turnovers and scored 29 points off of them.
It looked like a matchup that Canada took personally after what happened in 2015. And whether it was or it wasn’t, the win evoked a standing ovation from the Edmonton crowd, who realized that Canada had clinched a spot in the 2023 World Cup on home soil.
“It means a lot. A lot of us come from far away to play these games,” Roberston said. “For me, and I can speak for a lot of guys on the team, this is almost like a vacation for us. It’s super focused of course, but being with our countrymen, especially being on Canadian soil, it’s amazing for us. Being able to play for our country, it’s super fun. We play such a fun style of basketball. It doesn’t matter to us who is scoring, who is not scoring, who is on the bench, who is on the court. It’s all fun for us.”
“We have a saying, Coach said before the game, we have to prove and re-prove,” Roberston added. “Regardless of if we qualified or if we’ve got a couple more games to go, we’re still out for blood. We’re not letting up… We’re coming to get better as a team, play our style of basketball and dominate as much as we can. We’re not here to lose, no matter who we play.”