Minus head coach, Canada women's basketball looks forward following Olympic disappointment

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Canada's Natalie Achonwa, left, and Bridget Carleton, right, seen above at Tokyo 2020, are two of just three Olympians at the team's training camp in Toronto. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images - image credit)
Canada's Natalie Achonwa, left, and Bridget Carleton, right, seen above at Tokyo 2020, are two of just three Olympians at the team's training camp in Toronto. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images - image credit)

In the days after its loss to Spain at the Tokyo Olympics, Canada's women's basketball team waited.

It waited to see if it would reach the quarter-finals, which it did not. It waited to clear post-competition COVID-19 protocols. It waited more in case another team was struck with the virus, opening a second-chance spot in the knockout rounds. That didn't happen either.

Eventually, the team simply returned to Canada.

"We got to meet together, we got to reflect a little bit on the journey it took to get there," said three-time Olympian Natalie Achonwa. "I've always described it as kind of like a mourning process you go through when you've put so much into something."

General manager Denise Dignard said it was a moment to take a step back and eventually return to the drawing board.

"What Kia [Nurse] said to the group in that time is it's not a given that you qualify for the Games."

The mourning period is now over. And with some new faces and no head coach in place, the team may currently be in a transitional stage.

Soon, it'll be full-steam ahead once again.

The next major tournament arrives in September with the World Cup in Australia, but Canada first must book its ticket through qualifying tournaments in February.

WATCH | Canada's Olympic medal hopes end with loss to Spain:

Meanwhile, long-time coach Lisa Thomaidis parted ways with the program six weeks ago, and a replacement has yet to be named.

A version of the team featuring just three players who touched the court in Tokyo — Achonwa, Kayla Alexander and Bridget Carleton — gathered in Toronto on Sunday for a series of practices at the Toronto Raptors' training facility at Scotiabank Arena.

Despite the lack of a head coach, training camp proceeded in a mostly normal manner. A job posting for the open position is available online.

"[Training camp is] very different in the sense we don't know the direction in X's and O's they're going to take us, but similar in the sense that the passion that we play with, the commitment for us to be here is always the same regardless of who's going to be at the helm," Achonwa, 28, said.

Joining the trio of Olympians was mostly a group of younger players, plus Olympic alternates Aislinn Konig and Sami Hill. Nurse was absent as she recovers from surgery on her torn ACL.

"I felt it was critical for us, irrespective of who was available, to bring people together," Dignard said.

Dignard said Sefu Bernard, the director of player development with the WNBA's Washington Mystics who previously held similar titles with the Raptors and Canada Basketball, helped put the training camp framework together while Clarke and Baur assisted on the implementation.

Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and former Raptors assistant Chris Finch pitched in helping to put together the offence.

WATCH | Bring It In Panel discusses likelihood of WNBA in Toronto:

The team won't gather again until the February qualifier and should learn both the site of its tournament and opponents by the end of November. Canada remains fourth in FIBA rankings, just as it was before Tokyo.

It all makes the eventual coaching hire even more crucial.

"Regardless of who the coach is going to be, they're going to come into an environment of players that are ready to work, players that are passionate to represent their country and players that will stick together no matter the ebbs and flows of the game," Achonwa said.

Building blocks

Achonwa and Alexander both said that hiring someone who can help the team take the next step is most important than other potential factors.

"I would love for it to be a woman. There's plenty of great women professional coaches out there so if it is that's great. But where we are in this evolution in this women's program is we need to win. So whoever's going to be able to take us over that hump is who I'd love to fill the role," Achonwa said.

Alexander, 30, helped step into the leadership void in Toronto, with a message for the younger players to "go hard."

"You gotta challenge yourself because if you challenge yourself then you're going to challenge your teammates, and at the end of the day that's going to make everybody better," she said.

With Paris 2024 on the horizon, Achonwa — who experienced a pair of Olympic quarter-final exits before Tokyo — knows the team can't take anything for granted.

"The little things that you're able to accomplish in smaller groups, in smaller time periods like this are essential to future growth," Achonwa said.

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