Canada beat Great Britain 73-65 Monday night in women's basketball to even its record in the preliminary round of the tournament, and perhaps more importantly return a sense of equilibrium to its psyche.
It was a seat of your pants kind of win. With a raucous crowd of 8,563 cheering each free throw made by the home team as if it was the last shot of the game, Canada's narrow lead evaporated with 7 minutes 47 seconds left in the game on a steal and layup by Johannah Leedham, the British captain. But the Canadians maintained their composure, and when Kim Smith nailed a jump shot from just inside the line and pumped her fist (just as one of the British coaches threw his clipboard on the floor) to regain the lead, there was a sense of finality to the proceedings. A tap-back by 19-year-old Natalie Achonwa, who has been with the program since she was 16, made the score 68-63, and the British had nothing left.
It was a far better conclusion for the Canadians than in their first game of the Olympics, a 58-53 defeat to Russia last Saturday. Losing by five points to the third-ranked team in the world was hardly a disgrace for the Canadian women's basketball team. But it was the way it happened. The shock and awe of a blown, 10-point lead.
"It was disappointing, and all of us were pretty much down the whole day after the game," Canadian guard Shona Thorburn said of the Russian game. "But Monday, our coach [Allison McNeill] just said: 'Guys, let's go. We have to move on.' I think we realized that Russia proved we could play with good teams, and that we'd need to grind out this win [against Great Britain] and then play better when we meet France."
Eighth-ranked Canada plays eighth-ranked France early Wednesday.
The tournament format has two pools of six teams, with the top four in each advancing. A loss to the 49-ranked British would have killed Canada's chances, and while this was hardly an artistic effort – Great Britain had as many rebounds (36) as the much bigger Canadians, and the Canadians turned over the ball 21 times – it was the finish that Smith wants her teammates to remember.
"We got stops and held on to the ball better," Smith said with a shrug when asked why Canada was able to prevent a collapse.
It helped that Canada stayed out of foul trouble, no small feat given the frenetic style of Great Britain and the hostile environment.
"They're a team that penetrates," Smith said. "Our big thing was to stay off them and make them hit tough shots over us. We were bigger than them. We used it to our advantage."
Thorburn, from Hamilton, had 18 points to lead Canada while Smith, from Mission, B.C., and Courtnay Pilypaitis of Orleans, Ont., had 11 points each. Canada shot 46 per cent from the field and was 8-for-21 from three-point range, with Pilypaitis and Thorburn hitting three each.
McNeill liked the composure of her team. Krista Phillips, Canada's big centre from Saskatoon, was in foul trouble against Russia and that prevented McNeill from using her rotation in a preferred manner. McNeill's hands were not tied against Great Britain, and that is a must for advancement. Mixing in two different zone defences gave her some protection, too.
"One of the things we've always talked about is to be aggressive without putting people at the foul line because at the international level, there are a lot of good free-throw shooters," said McNeill. "It hurt us against Russia. We shortened our rotation a bit today, but that was because some of them were playing well. When you're forced into how you use your rotation, it's frustrating for everyone including the players."