By Gary Kingston
May 16, 2012
Many of them are still relatively young, but with winter resumes that include international pro experience in countries from Australia to Turkey, Lithuania to Holland, they aren’t “girls” anymore.
As the Canadian senior women’s basketball team prepares for a last-chance Olympic qualifier next month in Ankara, Turkey, optimism abounds.
Canada, which beat China 78-66 Wednesday night in Langley in the first of three exhibition games in three nights, needs to finish in the top five of the 12-country tournament to write a ticket to London.
The Canadians have eight returning players from the 2010 world championships squad, including veterans Teresa Gabriele, 32, and Kim Smith, 28, both of Mission.
But it’s that experience gained against hard-edged European women in the last year or two by the likes of athletic Miranda Ayim, 24, of London, Ont., and six-foot-five centres Krysten Boogaard (Regina) and Krista Phillips (Saskatoon), both 24, that has head coach Alison McNeil believing that this team can get Canada back to the Olympics for the first time since 2000.
“There’s no reason why we can’t qualify,” says McNeil. “The last 12 teams left are all really good, so you’ve got to be good on that day.
“But I think one thing we do have that maybe we didn’t have at the last Olympic qualifier, is experience. We had Kim, Teresa and [forward] Chelsea Aubry and then a bunch of second-year kids. And you can’t send girls to beat women. I don’t care how good they are, how talented they are, how much they’ve shone in the CIS or NCAA, they don’t have the savvy to play at that level or the toughness.
“I know we have that now. I think we have a really good chance.”
Smith was her usual solid self Wednesday with game highs in points (20, including four three-pointers) and rebounds (eight), but it was the quick, long-limbed Ayim who was named player of the game for Canada.
The six-foot-three forward, who played two seasons in Turkey after starring at Pepperdine University, had 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting, six rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals.
“It’s definitely a different style of play [in Europe], so it’s always good to get some overseas experience, especially when you’re so used to playing in America,” said Ayim. “It really prepares you for the international stage.”
Ayim has the strength to play a powerful post-up game, but also moves like somebody half-a-foot shorter, quickly filling passing lanes on defence and rebounding tenaciously.
“My athleticism is what I bring to the team, just being quick, hustling and giving my all on the team defence we’ve been working on.”
Ayim was the last cut two years ago before Canada went to worlds.
“It was a very hard cut, but she wasn’t ready,” said McNeill. “It’s just amazing what she’s done in two years. She looks like a seasoned veteran.”
Phillips, who played pro in Australia, had 13 points and a team-high six assists as the Canadians displayed terrific execution on offence, shooting 64 per cent in the second half when they pulled away after holding just a 36-35 advantage at the break.
“We played extremely well tonight and shot the ball extremely well,” said McNeill. “We can shoot it, that’s one thing we can do.”
China, fourth at the Beijing Olympics and currently ranked seventh in the world to Canada’s 11th, has already qualified for London. The two countries will play tonight in Richmond and Friday in Abbotsford.