Canada tuning out noise around expectations at FIBA Women's World Cup

Canada's women's basketball team shouldered weighty expectations at the Tokyo Olympics.

After back-to-back Olympic quarterfinal appearances, many surmised a medal was next — an assumption that may have played a part in Canada's crushing early exit.

A new-look Canadian women's team tips off the FIBA World Cup on Wednesday in Sydney, Australia, and in their first global tournament since Tokyo, they're tuning out the noise and living in the moment.

"You don't know how far I've drop-kicked the word 'expectations' — and not necessarily just from Japan," said veteran Natalie Achonwa, a forward for the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx. "Years ago, one of my (WNBA) teammates, Marissa Coleman, told me when you hold onto something so tightly, sometimes you suffocate it, and I think we were so focused on wanting to medal and so focused on standing on the podium at the Olympics that we played tight, and that we felt tight.

"'Process' is my word this time, and investing in a process, focusing on the process, enjoying the process has really been the focus."

Canada tips off the World Cup on Thursday (Wednesday evening in Canada) against Serbia, the team that all but determined the Canadians' fate in Tokyo with 72-68 win in their opener.

"I was actually thinking about that today," said guard Bridget Carleton, who also plays for the Lynx. "They just got to the hotel; I saw 'Serbia' across their chest. It'd be really nice . . . well, I'm excited to play them again, I'll just leave it at that. They're a great team but I'm definitely excited to play them, especially in the first game."

Canada Basketball made significant changes after the team's Olympics came to an abrupt end in the preliminary round. Victor Lapena, a Spaniard and veteran coach of that national program, replaced longtime Canadian head coach Lisa Thomaidis. Noelle Quinn, head coach of the WNBA's Seattle Storm, was hired as an assistant.

The team is also younger. The most notable newcomer is six-foot-eight centre Phillipina Kyei, who turns 19 on Oct. 5.

"It feels like something I've never been a part of," said Achonwa, a 12-year national team veteran. "I'm going to put that as a positive, that you can't continue to do the same thing and expect a different result.

"So yes, we had a certain group that got us here, and then yes, we had a couple of groups that maintained that for us, but you need something different for a different outcome. And I think we are very different. When you add youth in there, when you add some athleticism, when you add some age and some veteran-ship, I think it's a good balance."

Lapena is quickly making his mark with his tireless enthusiasm.

"When you add something as explosive as Victor, that changes us all and challenges us all on a daily basis, you're going to get different," Achonwa said.

Laeticia Amihere, who captured an NCAA title in March with South Carolina, is among the most athletic players in the game. The 21-year-old became the first Canadian woman to dunk in a game when she was only 15.

"She is just unreal," Carleton said. "It's so fun to play with someone who's that athletic, especially on the defensive end of the court. We can be creative with the things that we can do and pressure the ball and she can go guard (all five positions) if she needs to."

Kyei, from Ghana, made her Canadian debut at the inaugural GloblJam under-23 tournament in July, just a day after becoming a Canadian citizen.

Denise Dignard, Canada Basketball's women's high-performance director, believes Kyei — pronounced Chay — is the first six-foot-eight woman to suit up for Canada.

"She's big, she can be dominant, it's fun to see, it's crazy the amount she’s improved over the last four weeks and she's still so young," Carleton said of Kyei.

The tournament marks the first official basketball for star guard Kia Nurse since she tore her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in a WNBA playoff game with her Phoenix Mercury on Oct. 6.

"I look at it with a different lens because I didn't expect (Nurse) to be like old Kia," said Achonwa, who knows from experience — she tore her own ACL in college. "The idea is that you're going to be the same person (post-injury) and you're not, you'll always be new, and I like new Kia. She's still just as spicy, just as aggressive, but she'll bring something different."

The Canadians are in a tough Group B for the World Cup. Following Serbia, they'll play France, Japan and host Australia before closing the group phase against Mali.

The top four teams in each group advance to the quarterfinals with the winners moving on to the semifinals and medal round.

TIP-INS: The women's World Cup includes only 12 countries, while the men's tournament — the next one is in 2023 — has 32. Achonwa said she hadn't realized how wide the gap was until she did some TV work with men's World Cup qualifying.

"Just seeing how elaborate their tournament is was . . . mind-blowing. I actually didn't quite realize the disparity between them," she said. "I definitely think that an expansion needs to continue happening. We talk about expansion a lot in women's basketball, and especially women's athletics and as the talent pool and the level of basketball continues to grow, so does the opportunity need to.

"I can't wait for days where we have a World Cup that has 30 teams in it, and that's just as competitive as well."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press