Coach Lisa Thomaidis called the accomplishment gigantic and spoke of the elation around the Canadian women’s basketball team as it celebrated a fifth-place finish at the world championship.
But as significant as it was — a 61-53 win over China in Istanbul represented the best Canadian result at the worlds since 1986 — the true excitement is about what the future holds.
A group that combines seasoned veterans and up-and-coming teenagers seems poised to continue its ascent through the global rankings, beginning with next summer’s Olympic qualifying tournament in Edmonton.
“Nothing but excitement and happiness,” said 18-year-old Hamilton point guard Kia Nurse, who represents the long-term future of the program.
“Definitely the older players are a bit more excited than the younger players. They’ve been through the trenches and they’ve been with the team for a very long time, so they know exactly what it took to get here. Some of us younger players are just coming in now realizing what we have to do to get back to this place.
“We’re definitely thinking it can go nowhere but up from here.”
Where that eventually leads remains to be seen, of course, but there is absolutely reason for optimism heading into next summer and the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Nurse, Nirra Fields of Montreal and Windsor’s Miah-Marie Langlois put youthful athleticism in the backcourt, Katherine and Michelle Plouffe of Edmonton are emerging stars, and the veteran presence of guards Shona Thorburn and Kim Gaucher adds stability.
The program should get injured centre Natalie Achonwa of Guelph back — she missed the season after knee surgery — and London’s Miranda Ayim blossomed at the world championship.
It is a bit of a work in progress, but much progress has been made.
“We’re still learning,” said Thomaidis. “We’re not the team we’re going to be in a few years. We still make mental errors, still make bad mistakes. Our consistency game in and game out still isn’t there. When we get to that point, I absolutely think we’d get to the position to win a medal.”
Three of Canada’s four wins in Istanbul — over China, France and the Czech Republic — came against teams that began the world championship higher in the FIBA rankings than No. 9 Canada. Their two losses came against eventual champion United States and bronze medallist Australia.
“Any win at a world championship is a huge win, and when we get to play teams that are ranked ahead of us and, quote-unquote, better than us, to pull out the performances we had just really says a lot about where the program is,” said Thomaidis.
The combination of veterans and youngsters is unique for a program that spent most of the 1990s in flux. But a commitment from the athletes — and increased support and funding from Canada Basketball for extended training camps and exhibition tours — has created a much-needed level of consistency.
“For a while there, you saw a lot of players come through the system and they weren’t sticking around for whatever reason,” said Thorburn. “Just to even have a handful of players on this team (with) 100 international games together with Canada, that’s enormous. That shows the commitment from players.
“And everything that Canada Basketball has done on their side. I remember when I was 19, 20, we would maybe have 10 days of practice and we would be thrown into this major competition. No wonder we weren’t winning.”
That’s all changed, and Canada’s rise up the world rankings has been rapid. The women were 11th at the 2006 worlds, 12th in 2010, and had a top-eight finish at the 2012 London Olympics. A handful of women have been part of that improvement, making Sunday’s top-five finish even more satisfying.
“I think it’s elation, the culmination of a lot of hard work. Kim (Gaucher) has been with this team since 2001, Liz (Murphy) and Tamara (Tatham), Shona have been around almost as long as Kim,” said Thomaidis.
“They’ve been through some tough times. We couldn’t even play against the top teams in the world. They wouldn’t even play us. To see their elation after the game was just super rewarding. I think the young ones still don’t have a grasp of what this really means the gravity of the whole accomplishment.
They’re happy and they believe they belong, and that there’s good stuff yet to come and we’re going to continue to climb.”