TORONTO – Call it a stepping stone. In the end the Canadian men's basketball team ran out of gas and had to settle for silver at the Pan Am Games. It's not the colour it wanted but the overwhelming sentiment is that the best is still yet to come for the program.
Canada was overmatched on Saturday, falling 86-71 to a red-hot Brazil team that seemed to never miss and made Canada pay for its many mistakes. The Pan Am Games isn't exactly the highest stakes tournament in international basketball. But it was obvious on the players’ faces, and in their efforts, that this mattered and they wanted to win.
“I don’t like losing a game like that, but … we grew up throughout this tournament, we also grew up in this game a little bit,” head coach Jay Triano said. “We never quit and I thought the guys really played well in the second half.”
It was the fifth game in five days for both teams. Canada looked worn out from the start and started slow, falling behind by 13 by the end of the first quarter and by 19 at the half. The lead went as high as 25 in the third quarter before Canada came to life and offered a glimmer of hope. Canada closed to within six in the fourth quarter but couldn’t come all the way back.
“We put ourselves in a hole and tried to dig ourselves out of it, but it wasn’t enough,” guard Jamal Murray said. “They hit shots all game and we couldn’t slow them down.”
But the fact that this medal is the first ever for the program at the Pan Am Games wasn’t lost on the players. “We made history,” Murray said. “It wasn’t a happy ending today, but we’re the first group to ever do this. We’re still proud of what we did.”
And the future remains bright. Murray, 18, was one of the stars of the tournament and his effort in Friday's semifinal was a big reason why Canada was in this game. Dillon Brooks, 19; played 15 solid minutes in the second half on Saturday and provided Canada a spar, scoring all 11 of his points as Canada tried to climb back. A rejuvenated Anthony Bennett, 22, was Canada’s best player throughout the tournament. There's also a crop of young NBA players, led by rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins who could join the team for Canada’s next big challenge this summer – the Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico in September.
“I think the team is going to be drastically different,” Triano said. “But we gave a lot of guys an opportunity to put on the Canadian jersey. It was an interesting team, we had the best players available based on circumstances and the guys gave a great two weeks of effort.
“This is a great tuneup for what matters later in the summer. This is real positive.”
It wasn’t long ago that Canada’s basketball hopes rested on Matt Bonner getting Canadian citizenship in order to join the team. Those days are long gone. Team Canada general manager Steve Nash said it won’t be long before the team is cutting NBA players. That seems realistic considering the likes of young players like Murray who are coming through the system.
Murray cemented his place in Canada basketball lore on Friday in the semi-final win over the United States. He scored 22 points – all of them in the fourth quarter and overtime – and helped Canada rally to a 111-108 victory. Murray is headed to Kentucky next season and is projected to be a lottery pick in the 2016 NBA draft.
Canada’s basketball ‘Golden Age,’ as Nash called it, isn’t just on the men’s side either. On Monday, Canada’s women’s team won gold with a win over the United States. It was the first-ever Pan Am Games gold medal for the women, and more importantly it was a coming-out party for 19-year-old guard Kia Nurse. Nurse scored 33 points in the win and served notice that Canada’s women’s program is very much on the rise as well. The women head to Edmonton for Olympic qualifying beginning August 8. With the U.S. not there, Canada will be the favourites again.
On Saturday, the men came up short in making it double gold for Canada there’s obvious reason for optimism and a chance to avenge this loss at Olympic qualifying.
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