The FIBA women’s AmeriCup tournament may be coming at the right time for Team Canada.
Ranked fourth in the world, the team had not gathered together in person for over a year prior to arriving in Tampa, Fla., for training camp last month.
And so, for an Olympic medal contender, it’s crucial to get some games together prior to heading to Tokyo.
“We’re looking at those as preparation games for sure. That’s one goal in mind with those games. But the other one, obviously, is if you play, how best to perform well. And certainly our goal is to win the AmeriCup,” head coach Lisa Thomaidis told CBC Sports recently.
Canada’s first game at the Puerto Rico tournament is Saturday against the U.S. Virgin Islands — the first of four consecutive days of round-robin games, in which the biggest test will come Sunday against No. 15 Brazil.
The AmeriCup is generally viewed as the third biggest tournament on the calendar, behind the World Cup and Olympics. Canada would qualify for the 2022 World Cup with a top-four finish in Puerto Rico.
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Canada won silver at the 2019 AmeriCup, falling by 19 points to a strong American team in the final. Aaliyah Edwards, then 17, came off the bench to score nine points in that game, further solidifying her place in the national program.
Edwards, who will turn 19 in July, is now among the group fighting to show they deserve meaningful Olympic minutes at the 2021 event.
Canada will be without its WNBA trio of Kia Nurse, Bridget Carleton and Natalie Achonwa, as well as program stalwart Kim Gaucher, who is staying home with newborn daughter Sophie as she ponders her Olympic participation.
That leaves plenty of opportunity for the rest of the roster.
With three guards in Nurse, Carleton and Gaucher absent, younger players like Aislinn Konig and Shaina Pellington can compete with a more established player like Jamie Scott — who led the team in scoring in the U.S. loss — for additional ball-handling duties.
That position is especially crucial for a Canadian team that’s adopted a faster style of play in recent years. A steady point guard to lead the fast break can make a massive difference on both ends.
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General manager Denise Dignard said any and all minutes in a competitive environment for Canada’s younger players are important.
“It’s critical that people get some mileage in that space. And it’s a different level than the Olympics, but it also provides our staff with opportunities to integrate some of the new things that they want to. They’re constantly looking to evolve our style of play,” Dignard said.
However, it’s tough to add too much to the playbook while four players expected to step into big roles in Tokyo are missing.
The WNBA’s Olympic break begins July 15, 11 days before Canada’s opening game against Serbia. The proximity of events isn’t anything new to women’s basketball players, so the missing foursome should be prepared no matter what.
“When they rejoin us, there will certainly be a time where there’s a bit of an adjustment period to get them integrated into the things that we’re doing. But they’ve done that before,” Thomaidis said.
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The top four teams in each of the two groups in Puerto Rico advance to the quarter-finals, when the groups cross over in single-elimination rounds to determine the winner.
The American team, led by head coach Dawn Staley, features NCAA breakout star Sedona Prince of Oregon and former WNBAer Aliyah Boston. By virtue of the current WNBAers’ absence, it should wind up as a similar-calibre team to Canada.
Canada won the tournament in both 2015 and 2017. Held every other year, it never overlapped with the Olympics until Tokyo 2020 was postponed.
That gives the newest edition an unusual complexion, specifically for Olympic-bound Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S.
Dignard sees the opportunity ahead.
“We’ll look forward to getting some good training, some good preparation, good exhibition. And then when the WNBA players join us, we’ll have some exhibition just in advance of the Olympics down in Tokyo and then go from there.”