TORONTO, Ont. (August 7, 2019) -- The Canadian Senior Men’s National team kicked off their journey to the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 with a 96-87 exhibition win over Nigeria on Wednesday night.
Canada was led by 14-point efforts from Khem Birch and Kyle Wiltjer as five players finished in double figures, including 12 points from Brady Heslip and 11 points apiece from Melvin Ejim and Kelly Olynyk.
“It was pretty good,” head coach Nick Nurse said of the team’s effort in its first exhibition game. “Considering the short amount of time we had [to practice], you see flashes, there’s probably 16, 18 minutes of really good play and now it’s my job to keep extending that out.”
Canada got off to a slow start in the game as Nigeria built a 7-0 lead before free throws from Olynyk gave the team its first points. A dunk from Birch followed by a Birch offensive rebound and lay-in brought Canada within two midway through the opening quarter and the team took its first lead on a corner three-pointer from Kevin Pangos. Nigeria held a 20-14 lead after the opening 10 minutes as Canada struggled to score, making just 24 percent of its field goals while giving up 42 percent shooting to Nigeria in the first quarter.
Though Nigeria scored the first points of the second to extend their lead to eight, Cory Joseph went on a 5-0 run with a three-pointer and layup to trim Nigeria’s lead to three. From there, Canada found its range, connecting on nine three-pointers in the quarter, shooting 9-for-12 from deep.
“The second quarter, [shots] start going in, [you gain] a little momentum and you break the game open and that’s kind of the way we want to play,” Nurse said. “We’re going to rely on some of those scoring runs because we can spread the floor and move the ball and we’ve got shooters out there.”
In addition to Joseph, Wiltjer and Heslip each connected on three three-pointers in the quarter, while Oshae Brissett and Olynyk also connected from beyond the arc as Canada bounced back from a 24 percent shooting first quarter to go into the half shooting 47 percent from the floor, 50 percent from deep and leading by nine, 50-41. Nigeria shot 41 percent from the floor in the first half, but just 13 percent from deep, led by a 12-point effort from Ike Iroegbu. Wiltjer’s 11 points were a team-high in the half for Canada while Heslip and Olynyk each added nine points.
Canada suffered an unfortunate blow in the third quarter when Olynyk went down hard. After being helped off the floor, he did not return. Though Canada led by as many as 17 points (72-55) in the quarter, Nigeria trimmed the lead to 12 after three and Canada went into the fourth ahead 74-62.
In the final quarter, Canada was led by Andrew Nembhard who scored all eight of his points in the fourth. Though Canada never trailed in the fourth, Nigeria didn’t stop pushing and trimmed Canada’s lead down to two with 3:49 remaining. Birch responded for Canada, extending the lead back to four before Nembhard connected on a pair of free throws with 2:46 on the clock to put Canada ahead by six. After a three-pointer brought Nigeria back within three, Nembhard scored in the lane, then calmly drilled a pair of free throws with 33.8 seconds on the clock to extend Canada’s lead to six.
“He was good,” Nurse said of Nembhard. “That’s kind of what he looks like in practice. He’s a guy that can make plays and create and get his own. He plays with a really good demeanour.”
Playing in front of a packed crowd at Mattamy Athletic Centre, this was the first of seven exhibition games the team will play in advance of the World Cup. With just a few practices before suiting up for Wednesday’s victory, the team is looking forward to more time together to strengthen chemistry and familiarity.
“[This is] a group I'm comfortable with because I’ve played with them over the years,” Wiltjer said. “I pretty much have known every single guy since the eighth grade. It’s such an unselfish group, I think we really mesh well together.”
Getting to kick off the journey at home in front of a passionate home crowd was even better.
“It’s really cool for us, playing in front of a country that supports us,” Wiltjer said. “When you go to an event like the World Cup, you’ve got to have the country behind you. It’s a big-time deal. For us, before we go, knowing we’ve got the support behind us, seeing this arena tonight packed, it’s really cool to see.”
The two teams will travel to Winnipeg for a second game on Friday, August 9 before Canada travels to Australia for a five-game exhibition series against Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America from August 16-26.