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Canada starts last-chance Tokyo Games qualifying tourney with 97-91 win over Greece

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VICTORIA — Canada started slow but finished strong Tuesday, posting a 97-91 win over Greece in its first test in a must-win Olympic qualifying tournament. 

Greece led 50-46 at the half, but the Canadians — spurred on by their young NBA stars Andrew Wiggins and RJ Barrett, both with double-digit point totals — roared back in the second half for the win.

Wiggins finished with 23 points and Barrett had 22 points.

"It was tough at the beginning playing against somebody new," said Barrett. "But we were able to just play together and grind out the win. We did a good job of just figuring it out."

Canada next plays China on Wednesday in the tournament to determine one of the final teams to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

The game was played in an empty Save-On-Foods Memorial Arena in Victoria, but with the lifting of some COVID-19 protocols fans in limited numbers will be permitted at the games starting Thursday.

Canada's coach Nick Nurse, who also coaches the NBA's Toronto Raptors, said the team found a way to win after a difficult first half. It was the squad's first game together.

"I'm glad the way they bounced back," said Nurse. "It should help as part of our learning experience. I'm certainly most happy with the result, no doubt."

Rick Pitino, the renowned United States college basketball coach who also coaches Greece, said Barrett was a force during the game, especially on the left side of the court where he attacked the basket at will.

"If you give him his left hand he's unstoppable," said Pitino. "He's strong. He's tough."

Barrett has improved every facet of his game since his days as a college player, said Pitino, who expects to meet Canada for rematch in the tournament.

Eight NBA players are on the roster, arguably the most talented Canadian men's basketball team in history for this week's tournament on home court.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker (New Orleans), Luguentz Dort (Oklahoma City), Trey Lyles (San Antonio), Mychal Mulder, Dwight Powell (Dallas), Wiggins (Golden State), Barrett (New York) and captain Cory Joseph (Detroit) comprise the Canadian team.

The 12-man roster is rounded out by Trae Bell-Haynes, Anthony Bennett, Aaron Doornekamp and Andrew Nicholson. 

Alexander-Walker was dominant for Canada in the first half scoring 14 points, when there appeared to be more rust than finish as the Canadians were struggling at the outset against Greece.

Nurse said Alexander-Walker kept Canada in the game during the first half with three-point shots and his aggressive defence.

"It really was a big spark for us," he said.

Kostas Antetokounmpo, the youngest of the three NBA Antetokounmpo brothers, was a presence for Greece in the half coming off the bench.

Greece is without two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and brother Thanasis Antetokounmpo, with the Milwaukee Bucks competing in the NBA playoffs. 

Canada is ranked No. 21 in the world.

In addition to Canada, there are three other last-chance tournaments happening this week to determine final spots, in Croatia, Lithuania and Serbia.

Uruguay, Czech Republic and Turkey are in Group B.

Each team plays the other teams in its group once, the the top two teams in each group will advance to Saturday's semis.

The two semifinal winners will meet Sunday, with the winner clinching a spot in Tokyo. 

The Canadian women's team, ranked fourth, booked its third consecutive Olympic berth last February.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2021.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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