Canada crushes Panama 112-71 in FIBA World Cup qualifying

EDMONTON — The Panamanian national team came to Edmonton with no illusions of grandeur. The players knew they were likely going to be on the losing end of their FIBA World Cup qualifying match against Canada. They knew they were going to likely lose by a lot.

But, even though they knew they were overmatched, they were still in awe over how clinical and how ruthless the Canadian team actually was.

Canada remained the only undefeated team in Americas zone FIBA World Cup qualifying, beating Panama 112-71 on Sunday evening at the Edmonton Expo Centre.

Panamanian coach Flor Melendez Montanez said he was happy that the Panamanians were able to keep the Canadians close for a quarter-and-a-half, but after that, “they just destroyed us.”

Canada, now 10-0, had qualified for the 2023 FIBA World Cup on Thursday with an emphatic win over Venezuela. Canada is the only undefeated team in the Americas. It’s something that the basketball giants from the United States, Brazil or Argentina can’t boast about.

“It says a lot about Team Canada,” said associate head coach Nate Bjorkgren. “And, I’ll tell you this: We talk about 10 of them, and we’ve had the same approach for every single one of them. … The focus, the continuity of this group, they come right in and I wish we could be together longer. It goes really quick.”

Panama moves to 2-8, and is at the bottom of the qualifying group.

Veteran Panamanian guard Trevor Gaskins, who grew up in the United States and played college ball with Ole Miss, said his team could learn a lot from how Canada dismantled them.

“Coach said in the locker room, even though they were up by 30 or 40, they were playing as a team and running the system and the things that they’ve worked on. It’s so they can be better in the future or play in the World Cup. So I think (Panama’s players) can take from that, to see how you need to play with intensity, to see how you need to play hard.”

Canada has managed to develop continuity and a system over 10 games, despite the fact the roster fluctuates from window to window, because NBA players are only available for a small number of the FIBA windows. No NBA players were available for the Edmonton window.

But the depth group filled in admirably. Canada was led by a 22-point, two-assist performance from Aaron Best. Kassius Robertson had 13 points and three assists.

Panama got 14 points and nine rebounds from Ernesto Ogilvie.

After the game, Bjorkgren had high praise for Best, who won a CEBL title in 2022 with the Hamilton Honey Badgers.

“We ask him to run the floor, we ask him to crash the glass, he shoots the three, he does everything a coach wants him to do and a team wants him to do. He’s always making the right play.”

Canada beat Panama in an entirely different fashion than how they triumphed over Venezuela. Against the Venezuelans, the Canadians dominated the glass, and extended possessions with offensive rebounds. On Sunday, Canada didn’t need to be great rebounders, because they were simply great shooters.

As a team, Canada shot 53 per cent against the Panamanians, while holding the visitors to a 39 per cent shooting accuracy rate.

All 12 of Canada’s players got onto the scoresheet.

“It’s always fun when you’re playing well, and executing and doing the things that you want to do,” said Canadian forward Melvin Ejim, who had 12 points. “We went out, we executed our game plan, we did what we wanted to do and we were able to enjoy that.”

Sunday’s game had the feeling of a post-qualification celebration. A 10-0 run near the end of the first quarter asserted Canada’s dominance, and fans were treated to watching a Canadian team trying to score baskets as if this was an All-Star game.

It felt like every time Canada went down the floor, that the home team was interested in putting on a show.

Trae Bell-Haynes got gasps out of the crowd when his crossover dribbles left Panamanian defender Eugenio Bocaz on the floor. Centre Connor Morgan finished a circus alley-oop pass from Kassius Robertson with a thunderous dunk. Melvin Ejim threw down a thunderous dunk off a fast break. Thomas Scrubb threw a cross-court fastball to his brother, Phil Scrubb, who push-passed it to Robertson for a three. Jean-Victor Mukama threw down a dunk after rising high above the rim for a rebound.

“With the continuity we’ve been able to build among the group, you get a feel for the guys,” said Best. “You know where certain guys are going to be, you know where certain guys like the ball and when we get that kind of synergy going, and we play defence the way that we do, it just makes everything easier for everyone, offensively. That’s why you see the alley-oop plays and the backdoor cuts and all that.”

For a group of Canadian players who don’t play in the NBA, who aren’t household names, it was a chance to show off just how deep this country is when it comes to basketball talent.

And, the Canadians made it rain from three-point territory, hitting a total of 19 shots from behind the arc.

NEXT FOR CANADA

The players all head back to their club teams. Canada’s next FIBA qualifier is set for Feb. 23, 2023, on the road to No. 4-ranked Argentina.

NOTES

Canada is ranked No. 15 by FIBA, Panama is 51st. … Panama came to Canada on the heels of an 83-79 loss to the Bahamas on Nov. 11. … Canada beat Panama 106-50 Aug. 29 in Panama City. … Jahvon Blair was added to the Canadian roster for the Panama game, replacing guard Kenny Chery, who had to return to Turkey after Thursday’s win over Venezuela because of his club commitments.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2022.

Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press