By Greg Mercer/Torstar News Services
LONDON – Canada’s basketball women dug their way out of a deep hole against the second-ranked team in the world Sunday, but an unlucky cluster of fouls killed their rally in the game’s final minute.
Unfortunately for the Canadians, their 72-63 loss to Australia at the 2012 London Olympics means things are about to get even tougher.
Canada was trying to avoid a date in the quarter finals with the powerhouse U.S. women’s team, sporting a spotless 5-0 record at these Olympics and averaging a tournament-best 87 points per game.
Sunday’s loss means Canada, with a 2-3 record at their first Olympics in 12 years, will have to pull off a miracle on Tuesday to upset the gold-medal favourite U.S. squad – which is riding a 38-game win streak.
Canada clinched its first-ever Olympic quarterfinals berth with an upset over No. 6-ranked Brazil on Friday. The single-game knockout format means Canada’s Olympics are over if they lose to the U.S. Tuesday.
Kitchener’s Chelsea Aubry, the Grand River Collegiate grad, said the Canadians will stick with their plan of grinding out games, and hope for a historic upset.
“The U.S. are very, very, very good. Everyone knows that. They’re probably in a league of their own,” she said. “We’re going to fight, we’re going to play hard, and we’ll see what the end result is.”
Head coach Allison McNeill acknowledged the odds are against her team.
“It probably is a foregone conclusion, but we’re gonna go play. We’re going to show up, and we’re going to play hard and we’re going to do the best we can to try to win that game,” she said.
The talented American squad hasn’t lost a game since the 2006 world championships against Russia. Canada nearly beat Russia at the start of this Olympic tournament, suggesting to McNeill that the U.S. isn’t unbeatable.
“Can we play with them? We’re about to find out,” the coach.
In Sunday’s game, Australia got off to a quick start and never gave up the lead. Up by 24-10 after the first quarter, the smooth-passing Aussies overwhelmed Canada’s defence in the opening minutes.
Australia threw some big players at Canada, including six-foot-eight centre Elizabeth Cambage, a 20-year-old scoring-machine who towered over the Canuck defenders.
Canada strung together some offense in the second quarter, with Shona Thorburn and Miranda Ayim getting back-to-back jump shots and backing it up with solid defence. Guard Teresa Gabriele led the team in points with seven at half time, with Canada trailing 35-22.
In the third quarter, Hamilton’s Thorburn and Guelph’s Natalie Achonwa continued their tandem attack that offered an offensive spark for the Canadians. It was a slick-bounce pass on the run by Thorburn to Achonwa, drawing the foul, in the third quarter that made it an eight-point game.
“We were a little stagnant to start the game… I think once we found our rhythm and got back to what we know, they couldn’t defend us,” Achonwa said.
No. 11-ranked Canada was placed in a tough pool in these Olympics, she said, but the women have relished playing No. 2, No. 3. No. 6 and No. 8-ranked teams in the world.
“We’ve had a tough draw, but we love it. We’ve got to play against some of the best players and the best teams in this entire world,” she said. “We’ve never backed down from anyone we’ve played.”
Achonwa, the team’s youngest player at 19, really came alive in the game’s second half. She brought the score to within five points on a perfect feed to Tamara Tatham, who drove through three Australian players to get the layup.
Achonwa’s coach praised the teenager’s poise in these big games.
“I think we’re seeing her evolution here. She’s very calm… she’s intelligent, she knows how to play, and she doesn’t get overwhelmed by the big moment,” McNeill said.
Australia stretched its lead back to seven points in the fourth quarter, but a three-point shot by Kim Smith again brought Canada within striking distance. Smith, who had a team-high 17 points, followed that up with another big three-pointer that made the game 55-53.
Aubry says that never-say-die attitude, even when down against more talented teams, has long been the Canadians’ calling card.
“It’s inspiring to see that we do get down, but we fight back and we never say never,” she said. “We’ve always had that. That’s one of our strengths, we kind of just hang around and bother people when they think the game is going to get blown out.”
Canada came close again in the final minute, when Courtnay Pilypaitis nailed a huge three-point shot to bring Canada within three. Then Australia’s six-foot-five centre Lauren Jackson was awarded eight free throws in a row, and didn’t miss a single one – putting the game out of reach.