When the Canadian Women’s team arrived in late April at the 1979 World Championship of Basketball, they were a young and unknown force. Though they topped Group A in pre-tournament competition, they remained underdogs as they matched up with the host South Korean squad in the first game of the tournament.
The Koreans soon found out that they had severely underestimated a tall, long, and powerful Canadian squad. The Canadians used their height and defence to their advantage, winning the first game of the tournament 76-63 at the Seoul Sports Complex Gymnasium. Sylvia Sweeney, a 22-year-old Montreal native, had 24 points and 19-year-old Bev Smith of Salmon Arm, B.C. had 16 in the victory.
South Korea had expected to win; they had trained together since January of 1978, while Canada had been together for just three weeks and were the youngest team in the tournament.
“We were a very young team, not a lot of experience,” Smith told Canada Basketball over the phone this week. “We went there and we really liked playing with each other, we enjoyed each other, coach McCrae instilled a lot of pride in us playing for Canada and we had a chance to get a medal for Canada.”
The “dark horse” Canadian team then topped Italy 64-55, France 72-59, and narrowly beat Japan 56-55 on a Sweeney buzzer-beater at the end of the game. The Canadian club stood undefeated thanks to elite-level defence that allowed the fewest average points of any team in the tournament, largely due to the scouting of head coach Don McCrae that prepared the team for a variety of international styles.
In the second-last game of the tournament Canada defeated Australia 66-57 led by Smith’s 25 points and Sweeney’s 20 to remain an undefeated 5-0.
“Sylvia is just an exceptional player,” remembers Smith. “She is so talented and was way ahead of her time, very fun to watch and very good offensively. She’s only 6-1 but was able to play well defensively and block lots of shots because of her athleticism and timing. She’s just a beautiful player.”
With the championship title being decided on point differential, the Canadians didn’t have to beat the United States to finish first overall; they would claim the top spot if they lost by 12 points or less.
The title, however, eluded them as the United States won 77-61 led by Carol Blazejowski and Nancy Lieberman to claim their first World Championship since 1957. The USSR had won the previous five consecutive World Championships, but they along with five other Communist-bloc countries withdrew from contention.
Although Canada and South Korea both finished the tournament with 5-1 records, the silver medal was awarded to the Koreans while the upstart Canadian squad settled for bronze despite the strong showing.
McCrae said the girls were tired, both physically and emotionally, after a tournament filled with attention across Asia. The games were covered by four television networks from around the continent, and each game was viewed by a crowd of 20,000+ fans. The team had to designate times when the athletes would be available for interviews, photos, and autographs, and were assigned a police escort whenever they moved as a group. It was a level of attention the team never expected and certainly weren’t accustomed to.
“That team in 1979, we felt like we could compete with anyone,” said Smith. “We knew those were boycotted games, but South Korea was a power back then, as was the United States. I really felt it gave us confidence that we could compete with the best in the world. A lot of people didn’t give us a lot of credibility; I think it was coach McCrae that gave us the credibility.”
“I think for us the legacy was that given the opportunity, given training, and given good coaching, Canadians can compete with the best in the world and I think that still is very much the case to this day.”
Despite her team finishing third in the final standings, Sylvia Sweeney was named the tournament MVP after she recorded 24 points in the final game. Both Sweeney and Smith were named to the tournament all-star team validating their surprising performance and proving their place in international basketball.
Head Coach - Don McCrae
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