TORONTO – The Canadian women’s basketball team had two secret weapons en route to winning its first ever gold medal in women’s basketball at the Pan Am Games – Kia Nurse, and Powerade.
Nurse, just 19 years old, just months removed from her freshman year of NCAA basketball at the University of Connecticut put the team on her back, scoring an incredible 33 points in Canada’s 81-73 victory over the United States on Monday night. Even she didn’t see it coming.
“I felt a little down in the warm-ups today, a little energy-less,” Nurse said following the game. “I chugged a Powerade – that must have helped.”
It certainly did, as Nurse put on a performance for the ages and served notice that Canada’s basketball future is very bright. Nurse almost single-handedly brought Canada back after falling behind by 10 after the first quarter. She scored 12 second-quarter points helping Canada tie the game at 36 by halftime.
“I was just hoping to try to get the momentum switched,” Nurse said. “The U.S. had it [in the first quarter] so I tried to take it over and my teammates helped me do that.”
While Nurse was, as always, well spoken and humble, her coach perfectly summed up her performance.
“Kia has the heart of a champion,” Lisa Thomaidis said. “On the biggest stage she rises to the occasion. Unbelievable.”
While Nurse did it all for Canada in the first half when it needed a spark, she got lots of help in the second half as Canada extended its lead. Natalie Achonwa, on leave from the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, went scoreless in the first half but put up 13 in the second. Nirra Fields, 21, the other member of Canada’s young, dynamic backcourt duo chipped in nine points. Canada had a bit of trouble closing out the game but held on for the win, to the delight of the raucous home crowd.
“It’s a dream come true for these women, for our team,” Thomaidis said. “We’ve been in a lot of gyms where the crowds are cheering like this, but for the team we’re playing against. To finally get the opportunity to be the home team and come out and win is tremendous.”
While the win was very much a coming out party for Canada’s youngsters, the team’s veterans were perhaps the happiest to finally have a gold medal.
“I said to Kia, ‘I started playing for Canada when I was 14, I’m turning 33 and I’ve never had a gold medal around my neck,’ ” said guard Shona Thorburn. “This is a huge tournament to do that at. This is just the beginning.”
Lizanne Murphy, 31, a veteran of the 2012 Olympic team that finished eighth, said she wanted to win the gold “so badly.”
“We wanted everyone in Canada to know about us, to get on board and love basketball as much as we do,” she said. “We’re so happy. This is the first step in our summer. I can’t even describe the feeling. Playing for your country, winning at home, with this crowd – it’s unbelievable.”
As for Nurse, she just wanted to steal some spotlight from her brother. Nurse comes from a family of star athletes. Her father, Richard, played in the CFL for the Tiger-Cats and Blue Bombers, and her brother Darnell was a first-round NHL draft pick by the Edmonton Oilers in 2013. He won gold with Canada’s world junior team this year.
“I’ve got to watch my brother do all these crazy things for himself, so when you get one up him it’s a great feeling,” Kia Nurse said with a giant grin.
Canada outscored the U.S. 68-50 over the final three quarters as its defence forced 18 turnovers and wore down the U.S. This U.S. squad was billed as very much a ‘B’ team, at least by USA Basketball standards. With the WNBA season in full swing the Pan Am Games squad was a team of NCAA all-stars.
Next up for Canada is an even bigger event – the Olympic qualifying tournament in Edmonton, which begins August 9. Another win there and Canada will book its place in Rio for 2016. As reigning Olympic and world championship winners the U.S. team will not be at the FIBA Americas qualifying tournament. That’s good news for Canada as the field will look similar to the Pan Am Games competition as it tries to qualifying for the Olympics for the second Games in a row.
“We still have a lot of areas where we need to improve,” Thorburn said. “I think this is huge stepping stone, I think teams are going to be a little more intimidated to play us now and that’s an advantage.”
For now though they got to revel in hearing ‘O Canada’ from the top of the podium after perhaps the biggest win in Canadian basketball history.
“Could you hear us on the podium? We were belting it out,” Thorburn said.
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