Canada's Amihere chasing NCAA title with top-seeded South Carolina

·4 min read

One date jumped out at Laeticia Amihere and Aaliyah Edwards when this season's NCAA women's basketball schedule was released.

Amihere and the South Carolina Gamecocks faced Edwards and her Connecticut Huskies on Feb. 8, and the two young Canadian women couldn't wait.

"We talked about it (when the schedule came out)," said Amihere, whose Gamecocks lost the overtime thriller 63-59. "We love competing against each other, and it's awesome to see both of us at the next level."

Amihere and Edwards are among an impressive group of Canadians in the NCAA women's basketball tournament that tips off Sunday in San Antonio. Canada has one player on each of the four top-seeded teams: Amihere, Edwards, Rebecca Demeke (North Carolina State), and Alyssa Jerome (Stanford).

There are 27 women, and the strength and depth of the Canadian contingent is a point of pride for them all.

"Everybody here who are Canadians I've played with, just being able to see them play at the next level, we've always had that capability and just being able to see it in fruition and seeing everybody here, it's awesome," Amihere said.

There's a camaraderie among the Canadians, Amihere said, that was evident when the Gamecocks beat Tennessee to win the Southeastern Conference title.

"When people win their conference championships, we're the first to reach out to each other and talk about it and applaud each other," she said. "As long as we're not playing each other, we're rooting for each other."

The 19-year-old sophomore from Mississauga, Ont., is averaging 6.2 points and five rebounds in 17.4 minutes and brings energy off the bench.

The six-foot-four forward is probably best known as being the first Canadian woman to dunk in a game, throwing it down on a fast break when she was just 15 in an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) game. She regularly gets asked to show off her dunking prowess, either by media or by teammates. She is constantly asked about the famous dunk, but doesn't mind.

"I think it's exciting," she said.

She hasn't dunked yet in a college game, not wanting to force it.

Amihere's mom is from the Ivory Coast and her dad is from Ghana. When school started in the fall after a summer of unrest amid racial injustice in the U.S. and around the globe, she embraced a new leadership role at South Carolina. She's the head of the diversity and inclusion committee.

"I take a lot of pride in that role," she said.

Her Twitter handle — and nickname — is @_theblackqueen_.

"My mom is big into our culture," Amihere told ESPN. "The nickname is just being proud of my culture and feeling like a queen — feeling confident and embracing who I am and my background."

The Gamecocks tip off Sunday against No. 16 Mercer, and Canadian women's coach Lisa Thomaidis will be paying close attention.

While there have been Canadian women in the NCAA tournament for years, Thomaidis said the depth and the talent of this group is exciting.

"They're playing bigger roles on higher-ranked teams. They're being counted on, relied upon to produce for their teams. Their role is just significantly bigger," Thomaidis said.

"And so yeah, it sure is a sign of the times and a sign of the quality of the women that are coming from Canada and playing in the NCAA — so that's really fun to watch."

They're also getting big-game experience that they can bring to Canada's national team.

Amihere, Edwards, Merissa Russell, a freshman guard at Louisville, and Shaina Pellington, a junior guard at Arizona, are among Canada's pool of 20 players who will be considered for the Tokyo Olympics.

A strong performance in March Madness isn't the "be all and end all" for Olympic team selection, Thomaidis said. But the extra exposure doesn't hurt.

"We're always evaluating and always watching our athletes compete and perform. And so it's great that we can see them and have that evaluation, and that always helps, the more we get to see them play in different contexts and different experiences," the coach said.

"It's not going to determine whether they're on the team or not, but it's great to watch them grow and see how they compare to the last time we got to see them play. And when they come into our (senior women's camp) and compete with the rest of our pool, that'll be the main determining factor."

The Canadian women have already clinched a Tokyo Olympic berth.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press