Becky Hammon drives against Canada's Shona Thorburn on Saturday (Getty Images)Coming closer to beating powerhouse Russia than anyone expected — before the Steve Nash of women's basketball took over — cannot turn into a chimera for Canada women's hoops team.
In other words, it doesn't matter whether Canada lost by five or 15 points in its London 2012 opener against Russia, which survived with a 58-53 win thanks in large part to one-time WNBA MVP Becky Hammon scoring eight consecutive points in the final three minutes, as part of a game-ending 18-3 surge. The easy way out for Canada is to sugarcoat it by saying they came close or call it a heartbreaker, even though coach Alison McNeill's team had the silver medallist from Beijing down by as much as 12 at one point.
Russia is notorious for slow starts and might have been riper for an upset than Canada's later opponents, France, Brazil and Australia. Canada needs to upset at least one of the world's women's hoops heavyweights to earn a spot in the medal round, which would be a coup for a program playing in the Games for the first time since 2000. Another upset happened in the women's tournament earlier Saturday, with China upending the Czech Republic, the defending world runners-up.
So it's doubtful, though, that Canada can be satisfied with a job half-done. The result should build confidence and shows they can play with the world's best. As Kim Smith, the game's high scorer with 20 points, put it: "We know we're a good team, we've known that for a while. Other people haven't really figured it out yet, but we know we can compete with anybody, and we're still looking to make some noise in this tournament."
This was reminiscent of Canada's loss to Croatia on June 29 at the Olympic qualifying tournament, the loss which forced them to win two sudden-death games. They built a lead thanks in huge part to a hot hand from Smith (6-of-9 shooting, including 5-of-7 on triples). Keeping Russia to 36.9 per cent effective shooting also reflects how McNeill has built a team which should be a tough out against almost any team in the world by virtue of its defence, which slipped when it mattered. With its often sporadic shooting, Canada has to keep opponents in the 35% range to have a chance on most nights.
That fourth quarter was where some of Canada's rough spots as a basketball nation come to light. Checking Hammon for four quarters was too much to ask. As one of the greatest players in the WNBA's history, the San Antonio Silver Stars veteran who became a naturalized Russian citizen after USA Basketball passed on her for the 2008 Olympics is on a plane far above any on-the-ball defender Canada could throw at her. (Like Nash, Hammon didn't really hit her prime until nearly age 30.)
Meantime, Canada, which isn't a great shooting team, cooled off offensively once Russia switched up its defence and keyed on Smith, who didn't even attempt a shot in the fourth quarter. They need someone other than Smith to make a shot; the rest of the team was 10-of-42, with qualifying tourney MVP Courtnay Pilypaitis scoring just five points on 2-of-12 shooting. Keep an eye peeled for how Pilypaitis responds on Monday.
Canada's next action is a must-win vs. host Great Britain on Monday (3 p.m. ET/noon PT, Sportsnet). Former Canadian national team coach Ken Shields is an assistant coach for Team GB.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.