Canada beats Brazil, advances to women’s basketball quarter-finals

Neate Sager

Seconds after getting the wind knocked out of her, Shona Thorburn took the wind out of Brazil's sails. And now Canada, after beating its FIBA Americas rival for the first time in more than a decade with a 79-73 win at London 2012, is off to the Olympic women's basketball quarter-final.

Canada (2-2) was put to to the test, going from a 14-point halftime lead to trading the lead back and forth in the third and fourth quarter after pressing, running Brazil turned the contest into in fast-break game. But moments after Courtnay Pilypaitis hit a three to open a four-point edge with 5:10 left, Thorburn was levelled by an illegal screen by Erika, Brazil's 6-foot-6, 216-pound post. After collecting herself, Thorburn drained a triple on the ensuing Canuck possession to open a seven-point margin. Brazil (0-4) which needed a win to stay alive in the tournament, never got any closer than four points again.

"You can't get to where you can't see. None of the Canadian kids have seen us at the Olympics before so this is so big for the growth of our program," coach Alison McNeill said "When we qualified I made sure we are not going to get five-ring fever and be something we are not. We are now going to prepare for Australia [on Sunday], slow the game down and take it one step at a time."

Make no mistake, a team from a country without a domestic women's pro league or an active WNBA player reaching the Olympic quarters is a major achievement. Canada shared the ball well, with five scorers in double figures, with Kim Smith and Pilypaitis each scoring 14 points while Tamara Tatham, one of the few Canadians able to take Brazilan defenders off the dribble, stepped up with 13. Forward Natalie Achonwa, from Notre Dame, hooped 11 and Thorburn, the Hamilton native who's emerged as Canada's floor leader, had 10 with a game-high eight assists.

"To represent your country is a great honour, but to exceed expectations and get into the top-8 is huge for Canada Basketball," said Pilypaitis, an Orleans, Ont., native who is an assistant coach for the University of Vermont.

It's the first time Canada has reached the quarters in a non-boycotted Olympics; it finished fourth in 1984.

Canada, not known for its offence, had their highest output of the tournament with 79 points. They shot an effective 57.8 per cent (30-of-57, six three-pointers) and had 24 assists on 30 baskets.

Erika had 22 points and Clarissa chipped in 21, including 11-of-13 from the free-throw line. (Like their soccer teams, Brazil identifies players by first name only.) The South Americans stayed in the game thanks to quickness and pressure and getting to the free-throw line, making 26-of-32. However, Canada's defence forced them into 19 turnovers.

The win means Canada and four-time defending gold medallist Team USA will be the only teams from the Americas to reach the quarter-finals. McNeill's team, much like it did in the Olympic qualifier five weeks ago, rebounded with its back to the wall by beating a familiar opponent.

"It has been a long time since we beat them," McNeill said. "Brazil is quick and tough. We had to attack the pressure. Once we did that we were okay. We were strong coming down the stretch. We hit a couple of good threes which gave us a lead. I finally felt comfortable with 12 seconds left when we were up seven."

Canada faces perennial powerhouse Australia on Sunday at 7:30 ET to wrap up Group B play. Beating the Opals is a very tall order, although the winner avoids facing the Americans in the quarter-final. Please keep in mind the notion of a Canada-U.S. matchup in London might have seemed farfetched by times during this team's run.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.