Trio of scorers power Canada past Greece in opening game of FIBA Olympic qualifier

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Canada's RJ Barrett celebrates after a 97-91 win over Greece in the FIBA Men's Olympic Qualifying tournament on Tuesday. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Canada's RJ Barrett celebrates after a 97-91 win over Greece in the FIBA Men's Olympic Qualifying tournament on Tuesday. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Depth.

Canada finally has a depth of talent on its national men's basketball team. And they leaned into it Tuesday night in the opening game against Greece.

Led by the strong play of Andrew Wiggins, R.J. Barrett and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Canada started its quest to qualify for the Olympics with a 97-91 victory over Greece in Victoria.

The Canadians trailed by as many as eight points in the first half but mounted a charge in the last two quarters to start the event with a crucial win.

WATCH | Wiggins scores game-high 23 as Canada tops Greece:

Wiggins finished with a game-high 23 points, Barrett finished with 22 and Alexander-Walker racked up 18 points.

"We have a lot of guys that team's have to worry about," Wiggins said.

"This is big. This is big for the whole country. We have a chance here to do something special here for the country. We have to keep fighting, putting our heart out on the floor and hopefully make it in."

There were no fans in attendance inside the 7400-seat Victoria Memorial Arena creating an almost eerily quiet atmosphere at moments throughout the game — there were a number of times head coach Nick Nurse could be seen trying to fire up his players and staff on the sidelines, looking to ignite energy and excitement throughout his team.

It's a roster loaded with talent for Canada including eight active NBA players. But it was always going to be about team chemistry going into this international event that would lead to success for Canada. It was a slow start.

"We knew it was going to be a big learning experience. Our first game together with this team," Nurse said after the game.

"Our effort was really solid. Happy with the result but most happy we learned about who we are and [where] we're going next."

Missed shots, turnovers and lacklustre play defensively plagued Canada early and Greece made the Canadians pay.

Greece took a 50-46 into halftime.

'We just played together'

But the break seemed to spark the Canadians, as head coach Nick Nurse refocused the squad for the final 20 minutes.

"It was tough at the beginning. First time playing against somebody new," Barrett said.

"We just played together and grinded out the win. We did a good job of just figuring it out."

Canada looked like a different team in the second half — the ball movement was better, Canada was solid defensively and Barrett and Wiggins decided to take charge.

Wiggins' three-pointer with 3:43 left in the third quarter gave Canada its first lead of the game. They would increase their lead to five by the end of the third, outscoring Greece 28-21 in the frame.

WATCH | North Courts special guests preview FIBA Olympic qualifier:

The Canadians continued to pour it on, building an eight-point lead with 8:35 remaining in the game. It forced Greece to call a timeout but they were never able to recover.

Canada proved to be too strong down the stretch, their depth and talent out-matching Greece.

"The win is the most important thing. It felt great. One step closer and that's all that matters," Alexander-Walker said.

"We're capable of scoring. We started slow, so we just kept fighting and competing."

Nurse has called this the "golden age" for Canadian basketball — no doubt there's a lot of talent on the court. They took their first step toward qualifying for Tokyo and worked through a sluggish start as a team to finish strong to get the opening win.

Canada now plays China on Wednesday. Should they win they'll place first in the group and advance to Saturday's semifinal. The other group includes Turkey, Uruguay and Czech Republic.

Health officials have given organizers the go-ahead to allow about 10 per cent capacity into the venue for the semifinals and championship game.

Only the winning nation at this event will qualify for the 12-team event in Tokyo.

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