Courtnay Pilypaitis (No. 7, centre, shown after Canada's win vs. Mali) had 21 points and six assists in Canada's …
The most joyous celebrating of this country's birthday today took place in in Ankara, Turkey — where Canada's women's basketball team ended our 12-year Olympic hoops drought.
Canada survived a white-knuckle ride throughout the second half as it held off Japan 71-63 to get the fifth and final ticket to London from the FIBA qualifying tournament. They found their shooting stroke, as guard Courtnay Pilypaitis sinking five of the team's nine three-pointers to complement their characteristic defence and rebounding. This was as gold in a sport which has only 12 Olympic berths.
"All of our hard work just hit us at the end of the game, there were emotions, there was crying and screaming," said Pilypaitis, who had 21 points and six assists. "We just had worked so hard for this, especially the older players who have come every day for four years. Finally to get that, it's just unbelievable.
"Growing up and seeing the Olympics, you want to be there and be representing the country," Pilypaitis added. "We've all had this as a goal since a young age. It's just unbelievable to accomplish this. I'm just speechless right now. I could probably use every cliche, but it's true."
Guard Teresa Gabriele, the only holdover from the 2000 Olympics, chipped in 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Centre Krista Phillips (nine points, eight rebounds) and wing Lizanne Murphy (seven points, game-high five blocked shots) led the defensive effort. The win put Canada in an Olympic pool with Australia, Brazil, France, Great Britain and Russia in London. It was not lost on anyone that they did this on the nation's birthday after missing their first chance to qualify when they lost 59-56 to Croatia on Friday.
"It's Canada Day today so I thought we'd give our country the best present ever," Pilypaitis, a native of Orleans, Ont., who plays professionally in Lithuania, told FIBA.com. "I couldn't be prouder of our team... we had such a devastating loss in the quarter-finals and we just wanted to redeem ourselves and have no regrets. I'm just so happy to being going to London with such a great group of girls."
'Every day for four years'
Canada is, by admission, not the most gifted team individually. They found that extra push over the cliff on the nation's big day.
"It's unbelievable, how cool is that?" long-time coach Alison McNeill said. "I got up this morning, I haven't been checking my Twitter and my e-mail a whole lot. But today I checked and I had people saying, 'it's Canada Day, it's destiny, it's supposed to happen.' I think it's pretty cool we're going to celebrate going to the Olympics and also the birth of our great nation."
"Four years ago, we had some shirts made that said, 'It's not every four years, it's every day for four years,' " McNeill added. "They've been overseas, they've been away from friends and family and they've made the commitment and at the end of the day, that made the difference."
Canada opened the game with an 11-0 run. However, Japan, which got 14 points apiece from Maki Takada and Yuka Mamiya, continually made runs by virtue of its quickness, ball movement and a 2-3 zone that kept Canada from getting much dribble penetration.
"I don't know if I've ever coached a game where I was so in the moment," McNeill said.
The tensest moment, where memories of the Croatia comeback came flooding back, was during the 14-2 Japan run that pared Canada's lead to 54-51 with fewer than six minutes to play. Pilypaitis settled everything by coolly canning her fifth triple of the game from the right wing. Canada got a stop and a driving Murphy layup to stretch the lead to eight. Japan got the margin below five points only once the rest of the way.
Canada's outside shooting was non-existent vs. Croatia and France. Pilypaitis said she knew Canada needed the extra lift, especially since Japan was likely to go to a zone with its smaller lineup.
"That's something that I struggled with when I was younger," the former University of Vermont star said. "I'd miss a couple and I'd stop shooting. Over the years, you just have to know only the next shot matters. My teammates are great with encouraging me and, if I miss one, getting me the ball right back. They started playing zone and I knew we needed to hit a couple of outside shots to get them back into man.
"It's great. That's why you shoot 500 shots a day, for when it matters," she added.
After a week of shooting in the 30 per cent range, Canada shot an effective 53.5% (26-of-57, including 9-of-19 on threes) with everything on the line. They also had 23 assists on 26 baskets, which attests to how Japan made them work for everything. Pilypaitis' best play might not have been one of her three-pointers, but a pass in the third quarter where she found Murphy for a layup after being trapped in the right corner and nearly pushed out of bounds.
"We're not the greatest shooting nation and we're not the greatest shooting team, but we're tough mentally and we grind it out," McNeill said. "Some nights we shoot better than others."
Catalyst for growth?
Canada has punched its weight recently at the international level at the under-17 and under-19 levels. The men's and women's teams both qualified for last year's world championships. However, being in the Games has much more traction. Just one team going to London meants momentum for Rio 2016 and beyond.
"This is really big," Pilypaitis said. "Our younger teams have been doing well and to see that we have a senior team at the Olympics is something for them to strive toward. Young female basketball players are going to be able to watch us compete in the Olympics. When you're not seeing someone [from Canada] at the Olympics may cause that to go by the wayside. That younger generation can see that and have something to work for in the next four years."
Canada will be a decided underdog in London. McNeill plans to give her club time off. Then they will have a short training camp in Toronto as they look for "a second peak" at the Games.
"Are we a favourite? Of course, we're not a favourite going in," she said. "But on any given night if we play well, we have a chance. We play a certain style and we're physical and we can be very good."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.
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