By Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press on February 7, 2024.
Head coach Victor Lapena wasn’t high on his squad’s readiness to compete back in November, but things have changed since then for Canada’s women’s senior basketball team.
Canada opens play Thursday against host Hungary in a FIBA Olympic Qualifying tournament for a spot in the Paris 2024 Games. The fifth-ranked Canadians went 3-0 in the Olympic pre-qualifying tournament three months ago to inch toward qualification.
“At that time, the team was not very ready,” Lapena said of November, mentioning some were returning from time off after the WNBA season and Natalie Achonwa from maternity leave. “We acknowledged the situation and I told them ‘in the coming months, we have to work a lot. We have to do great effort, we have to be in touch.’
“What I felt once we got to (this) camp is they worked really, really hard. So for that reason, I’m very positive with how the team is right now to compete in the tournament.”
From the standpoint of veteran forward Kayla Alexander, the pre-qualifying tournament showed the team’s commitment and ability to hit the ground running.
“It also just showed how well we could play with each other when we got on the court with one another,” the Milton, Ont., native said. “It was like a nice stepping-stone to get that time together on the court and continue to build on what we’ve already been building on.”
Lapena was hired in January 2022 after the exit of longtime coach Lisa Thomaidis. With a team already sitting high in the FIBA rankings, the Spaniard was tasked with getting the team back to the Olympic stage.
Canada had high hopes for the 2020 Tokyo Games but finished ninth, failing to make it out of the preliminary round despite being ranked fourth in the world. COVID-19 had kept the team from practising together for the better part of 18 months leading up to those Olympics.
Lapena has since led Canada to a fourth-place finish at the 2022 FIBA World Cup – its best finish since winning bronze in 1986 – and a bronze medal at the 2023 FIBA AmeriCup.
“From the beginning of my time here, we built relationships, we built a great culture,” he said. “I think our players understand our style of play, so it’s easier for me right now to have (them ready) in record time like now – three, four practices “¦ to compete at that moment.”
The Olympic qualifying competition is a four-team tournament and one of four qualifying events. Canada will also face No. 4 Spain on Friday and No. 9 Japan on Sunday.
The top three teams from this tournament will qualify to go to Paris in the summer. The U.S. and France are the lone teams to have already qualified for the Games.
“They are three different styles, we have to adjust in record time to all of them,” Lapena said. “I think we are ready for (No. 19) Hungary “¦ but in less than 24 hours, we have to compete against Spain, one of the best teams in the world.
“So it’s not going to be easy but if we keep our emotions under control – what happens, happens – and just believe in ourselves, the team will compete and the team will qualify.”
The team will be missing veteran guard Kia Nurse, who sustained a minor injury in training camp, while some were unable to join due to being in the middle of their NCAA seasons.
Alexander says there is some pressure to perform, but she is focusing on enjoying the tournament.
“We’re playing against tough competition every day in the tournament, there’s no off days,” she said. “Which is also fun, you want to play against the best of the best to be the best.
“I would say there is some pressure but I’m not focused on that I’m focused on one game at a time, going out there with my teammates, playing to the best of our abilities and having fun on the court doing what we do best.”
The result from Tokyo is still in mind for Alexander.
“There’s definitely a little bit of that redemption of wanting to make sure we get back to the Olympics and performing how I believe we can perform on that stage,” she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2024.