Argentina breaks Canada’s undefeated streak with gritty home win

Canada falls to Argentina due to lack of available talent, but still have positives to takeaway.

Team Canada had much less to play for.

After going 10-0 in the first ten qualifying games and becoming the first team from the Ameircas to book their place in the 2023 FIBA World Cup, they were trying to become the first team to go 12-0 in qualifying. Other than that, however, the only thing to play for was marginal gains in the World Rankings, where they currently sit 15th, which may or not matter when it comes to drawing pools for the World Cup. Their opponent, Argentina, had everything to play for after starting qualifying 7-3 and being on the verge of missing the World Cup for the first time since 1982.

But that wasn’t the problem. 

Canada came to play. After falling into an early 6-0 hole just two minutes into the game in an intense environment in Estadio Polideportivo Islas Malvinas in Argentina, associate head coach Nate Bjorkren called an early time out and the cameras showed him giving an impassioned speech to his team. He told them that they came  to “fight” and called out his team for a lack of effort, specifically veteran Phil Scrubb for not having his hands up to contest an Argentina three-pointer.

Canada responded and effort wasn’t a problem for the rest of the game. Talent was. 

Canada stormed back to take a 18-17 lead at the end of the first quarter, with starting point guard Kenny Chery scoring 7 points in the frame. But the Argentines went on a run as soon as the second quarter started, outscoring the Canadians 23-13 in the frame and never looking back, winning 83-72 and breaking Canada’s undefeated streak in qualification. They now have a win-or-go-home game versus the Dominican Republic on Sunday.

“It was tough out there,” Bjorkgren said after the game. “I thought our guys fought. I liked our defence. I wish we would have finished a little bit better on offence, but it was a hard-fought game. 

“Give Argentina a lot of credit. Great fans, great players, great coaches. It was a fun atmosphere to play in today.”

The problem for Canada was simply a lack of talent. They battled on the defensive end, holding Argentina to just 83 points on 48 percent shooting. But Canada was sloppy with the ball in their hands, coughing up 18 turnovers and giving up 17 points off turnovers. They simply didn’t have enough ball handlers or scorers to get the job done, which makes sense given the talent they had at their disposal.

Not only were all the NBA players not available, but several of Canada’s best winter core players were also absent from the sixth and final round of qualification. In fact, three likely starters in Kevin Pangos, Melvin Ejim, and Kassius Robertson were all with their club teams or injured and therefore unable to make the trip. Instead, Canada brought a young and relatively unproven roster to Argentina, and the lack of depth and familiarity proved detrimental. 

If Canada were going to go into Argentina and beat the 2022 AmeriCup winners while missing so many key players, they were going to have to be nearly perfect. And while Phil and Thomas Scrubb tried to will the team to a win, shooting a combined 12-26 from the field for 30 points along with Chery added 12 of his own, Canada simply didn’t have enough support to get the job done and outscore an Argentina team led by former Denver Nugget Facundo Campazzo and veterans Nicolas Brussino and Carlos Delfino.

“Campazzo’s a really good player and he’s got really good pieces around him,” Bjorkgren said. “He’s tough because he can score, he gets to the foul line a lot. He passes it, he makes the right play. You’ve just got to keep trying to give him different looks.”

Despite the loss, there were some bright spots for a young Canadian team that featured several players making their senior team debuts, including Jackson Rowe, a 26-year-old, 6-foot-7 forward currently playing in Germany. Rowe was a surprise addition to the starting lineup and finished with 8 points, 6 rebounds and 2 steals while playing solid defense both on the perimeter and inside. He is a versatile player who can do a little bit at everything at the four and five spots.

Kadre Gray and Kalif Young also provided very good minutes, getting better as the game went on, with Gray providing stellar defence on Campazzo as he got into the ball and made things difficult for the Argentinian point guard. Young, meanwhile, was Canada’s best center on the night, running the floor as a rim runner and protecting the rim as a big, long deterrent who also finished with 9 rebounds on the night. The two 25-year-olds both made their senior team debuts at last summer’s AmeriCup.

The other positive, aside from some young players popping for Team Canada, was that they were still competitive with an almost full Argentina squad that they are going to have to place ahead of in the upcoming World Cup if they want to place top-2 in the Americas and qualify outright for the Olympics. Argentina fired their previous coach after losing to Canada last summer when Canada had their NBA players available, when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kelly Olynyk combined for 44 points, and they have struggled in qualifying.

Canada has one final qualification game on Sunday, Feb. 24 versus Venezuela who, like Argentina, will be playing for a spot in next summer’s World Cup. Again, the game will matter a lot less for the Canadians than for their competition, but don’t expect them to throw in the towel. The Canadians had a goal to go 12-0 in qualification and, while they may have fallen short, there is still a lot of pride on the line. 

“We’ve got one more to go in Venezuela,” Bjorkgren said. “We’ll learn from this one. A lot to learn from this one, but I thought we did a lot of nice things. We ran up against a pretty good team.”

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