Canadian women will rely on experience as last Olympic push begins with a battle with the Belgians

Canadian women will rely on experience as last Olympic push begins with a battle with the Belgians

The Canadian women’s basketball program has been ascending through the global ranks for more than a decade. The players have been through tough games and beaten tremendous opponents in a span that has included top-eight 8 finishes at each of the last two Olympics and a No. 4 ranking in the world today.

All of the lessons learned in that rise are going to come in handy as the women make their final push toward a third straight Olympic berth, starting Thursday afternoon in Ostend, Belgium.

“We have a lot of experience to draw upon and a lot of players who have been in tough situations, big games in different countries,” head coach Lisa Thomaidis said. “Hopefully that works in our favour.”

Six of the 12 women — Miah-Marie Langlois, Kia Nurse, Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, Kim Gaucher, Miranda Ayim and Natalie Achonwa — are holdovers from the quarterfinal team at the 2016 Rio Olympics and, along with Bridget Carleton and Jamie Scott, the seventh-place team at the 2018 world championship.

Canada is in a group — with Belgium, Sweden and Japan — vying for two spots at the Tokyo Olympics this summer. With Japan already guaranteed a berth as the host nation, only one team will miss the Summer Games.

The schedule forces Canada into one of its biggest games right off the bat. They play host Belgium and star Emma Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP, on Thursday at 2:30 ET.

“They have one of the best players in the world on their team … so it’s definitely a good challenge (with them) playing at home,” Gaucher said. “I had some people that wanted to come from my club team in France and tickets here sold out in Belgium almost immediately, which is pretty neat. It’s going to be a full house (in the 5,000-seat Ostend Dome). It’s going to be a hostile environment, which is great practice for us.”

Canada has a veteran roster full of size and athleticism. Achonwa and Kayla Alexander can be a dominant inside duo and the likes of Langlois, Shaina Pellington and Raincock-Ekunwe are above-average athletes. They have star shooters and playmakers in Nurse and Carleton, and Gaucher and Ayim are two veterans who can calm things down when it gets a bit out of control.

“We believe our athleticism is our advantage,” Thomaidis said. “We’re going to be more impactful on the defensive end. I thought in November (at an earlier qualification tournament) we weren’t as tight and aggressive and as disruptive as we can be given the athletes that we have, so (we’ll be) looking for a bit more at that end of the floor, for sure.”

Canada’s main strength is its roster familiarity and experience. The top players always commit to training camps and qualification events so there is cohesion within the roster, but they also play in some of the top leagues in the world and gain great experience. There are five who ended last season on WNBA rosters and many have spent this winter playing in France, Australia and Russia in what are considered some of the best women’s leagues around. Toss in the international experience and nothing is likely to come up that the players haven’t seen.

“The experience is huge and the players who have been through it, it makes a huge difference,” Thomaidis said “Nothing is going to faze them and they know exactly what needs to be done to get the job done.

“We’re really able to build on some of things we were doing in November because it’s only been about two months. It’s not the typical gone for eight months and then coming back together. It’s relatively fresh for the players that were there, we can kind of pick up where we left off.”

After Thursday’s game against Belgium, Canada faces Sweden on Saturday and Japan on Sunday.

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Doug Smith

TORONTO STAR

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