For Canada’s senior women’s national team, a close quarterfinal loss to France—a team they’d beat several times before—at the 2016 Rio Olympics was heartbreaking. But hearts can be broken constructively. That a team without an Olympic medal in its history felt even a little wounded was a sign of the program’s ascendance under head coach Lisa Thomaidis. The Rio exit seemed like the sort of loss so motivating it begets the next win, the kind of narrative setback that exists to be bounced back from. So the mood entering the Tokyo Olympics was urgent. “It’s medal or bust for us … and that’s so exciting to be able to say if you were around this program when I first started,” 37-year-old captain Kim Gaucher told the Toronto Star last week.
Two games into group play in Tokyo, Canada hasn’t looked perfect, but the path to the podium is there for the world’s fourth-ranked team. On Thursday, they crashed the offensive glass and stayed poised in a 74–53 win over Korea, one they needed badly after being upset by Serbia a few days earlier in a game Canada seemed to sleep through until the last quarter. (The Serbia game also included this pass I am giving the grade of “lol.”)
A “lack of identity” is easy to blame when a team in international competition is less than the sum of its parts, but the SWNT doesn’t lack an identity. For about a decade, they’ve been an excellent defensive squad—forcing turnovers, playing physically, always moving. It’s not uncommon for Canada’s opponents to spend most of the shot clock just trying to get set on offense. Thomaidis called Thursday’s game, which saw her team outrebound Korea 54–32, and 22–9 on offensive boards, a good example of “Canada-style basketball.” But the weakness Canada-style basketball is often forced to mask is inconsistent shooting. Against Serbia, Canada shot 38 percent from the field, and 5-of-24 from three. Team Canada’s losses can be truly ugly, and the wins not much prettier.
Michael Grange at Sportsnet wrote a nice profile of Thomaidis last week, which revealed that she’s been working on the problem. After the 2016 Olympics, she sought the advice of former Raptors assistant Chris Finch, who coached the Great Britain men’s team in the 2012 Olympics and is now head coach of the Timberwolves. Together they saw untapped scoring potential in fast breaks. Maybe the SWNT’s signature defensive strength could yield some offense, too. “It starts with our defense, our tenacious aggressiveness on and off the ball, flying around and just playing together. That’s what translates to offensive transition and easier looks on the offensive end,” said forward Bridget Carleton after Thursday’s game.
Canada’s current roster tells an encouraging story about the women’s basketball program. Its oldest veterans, Gaucher and 33-year-old Miranda Ayim, have been with the team since merely qualifying for the Olympics was a huge deal. Headlining the team now are active WNBA talents in their primes—Minnesota’s Natalie Achonwa and Carleton, and Phoenix’s Kia Nurse. And then there’s Team Canada’s most exciting feature: a promising pipeline of elite college players. They aren’t getting heavy minutes, but in Tokyo with the team this year are Arizona senior Shaina Pellington, UConn sophomore Aaliyah Edwards, and South Carolina sophomore Laeticia Amihere, the first Canadian woman to dunk in a game.
The growth is the result of targeted investment on Canada’s part. A Sports Illustrated story from 2016 described the push to identify talent, led by Bev Smith, a former Oregon head coach and SWNT player:
Canada flooded money into youth and grassroots operations. Smith jokes that the budget was so small in ’97 she “can’t remember that little a number,” but knows a big chunk of their funds went to setting up regional basketball sites and clinics, with an emphasis on teaching fundamentals. In the immediate aftermath, the senior team suffered, because that budget could have helped them get more practice days or exhibition games. But Smith and the staff were confident there would be long-term payoff.
It’s payoff time now, and you get the sense Canada Basketball fans are growing impatient with what’s supposed to be their golden age. Earlier this month, Canadians (and one easily distracted Michigander who turned on the TV intending to watch the Tigers game) watched in horror as the Canadian men fell flat in a must-win Olympic qualifying game against the Czech Republic. The team’s hopes—the highest they’d been in a long time—were crushed by some elite Tomas Satoranskying that even a valiant Andrew Wiggins comeback attempt couldn’t stave off.
Next up for the SWNT in the group stage is unbeaten Spain and its star Alba Torrens, who they face on Sunday (Saturday night in North America). I like Canada’s chances and am cheering for these gals to bring some Olympic basketball glory back home. A first-ever medal win for the team would be in keeping with tradition, too: Of the 11 Olympic medals won by Canadians in Tokyo so far, all 11 have been won by women.