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Canada basketball
Holly MacKenzie

Canada Reacts to a Thrilling Olympics Qualification

Sopron, Hungary (Feb. 15, 2024) When Canada fell 86-82 to Japan in their final game at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Hungary on Sunday, the waiting game continued. Canada’s loss meant that their Olympic fate was now in the hands of Spain, the No. 4 ranked team in the world. If Spain defeated host team Hungary, Canada was in. If Hungary could prevail, it would be a long four-year wait to accomplish the goal again.

When asked prior to the game, Team Canada head coach Víctor Lapeña said he believed Spain would prevail. “I trust in Spain,” he said. “I trust in them because Spain never gives up, always competes. Always competes. We’ll see what happens.”

Lapeña clearly knows his former team well. Hungary made things interesting, leading by as many as 22 points in the second half before Spain completed a wild comeback, finally taking a one-point lead with five seconds remaining and holding on to snatch the last-second victory from the home team.

Now that emotions have stabilized, an inside look at what Sunday was like for members of the Senior Women’s National Team.

While Lapeña, his staff and some players chose to take in the game up close and personal in the stands at Arena Sopron, others, including veteran Kayla Alexander, couldn’t bear to watch it unfold.

“I didn’t watch,” Alexander said. “Seriously, I couldn’t watch it. I was feeling ill. I was just pacing in the hallway. I had come to terms with the fact that this wasn’t God’s plan, that we didn’t earn it and hopefully, in four more years…then people started messaging me saying, ‘They’re down five. They’re down three. It’s a one-point game.’ I was like I'm not going to get my hopes up, and then when they won I was in shock. Shocked. I think I'm still processing.”

Alexander was incredible for Canada in Hungary, averaging 16 points and 13.7 rebounds in the tournament as she was named to the FIBA All-Star 5 alongside Japan’s Mai Yamamoto and Saori Miyazaki, Hungary’s Dorka Juhasz, and Spain’s Raquel Carrera.  

“I’m just incredibly thankful,” she said. “I guess it is in God’s plan for us to be in Paris this summer, which I’m eternally grateful for. Most importantly, I didn’t want Kia [Nurse] and Nat [Achonwa] to go out like that. Kia, because of her injury, she didn’t get to play [in Hungary] and then Nat had worked her butt off to get back here so I was really happy for this team, for our squad and looking forward to going to work so that we can get it done in Paris.”

As Alexander mentioned, Canada was without Nurse in Hungary as she sustained a minor injury during training camp in advance of the tournament and was confined to the sidelines where she encouraged her teammates from the bench.

After the loss to Japan, Achonwa wanted nothing more than to be reunited with her nine-month old son Maverick. She left the arena entirely to return to the team hotel and be with him. Now that Canada has qualified for Paris, Achonwa will be a rare four-time Olympian when things tip off in Paris this summer.

"There are so many people that make this journey possible, that make this journey worth it,” Achonwa said. “To know that it's not over, that this fight is not over, to know that the commitment, the dedication, the sacrifice is all for something, it means the world. Canada will never doubt the pride and passion that we have every time that we put the jersey on and it will happen again in Paris 2024 and you can expect a different team when that happens."

Achonwa has worked hard to be back with the program, making her return to the basketball court following Maverick’s arrival when she represented Canada at the FIBA Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tournament this past November.  

“I’m super proud of Natalie, coming back from giving birth to Mav, just being the leader that she is, the basketball player that she is,” Bridget Carleton said. “I love having her back on the court. We have an incredible team and I think if we just keep building together, growing together, I think we can do some damage in Paris. I think we’re all experiencing this together which is super fun. I’m super proud of our team, our support staff, our coaches and everyone.”

FIBA’s official X (Twitter) account posted a clip of Yvonne Ejim, Shaina Pellington and Syla Swords watching the end of Hungary/Spain from elsewhere in the arena. Their euphoric reaction as they realized their Olympic dream was still alive accurately captured the mood for Team Canada.

Carleton herself felt the full range of emotions as she watched Spain fall behind and then race all the way back in the nick of time to secure the one-point victory.

“It’s hard to have your fate in someone else’s hands,” she said. “It was stressful. Down 20, come back. You experience the lowest of lows, and when the comeback was happening, the highest of highs. Luckily I had my mom with me so I could give her a hug when I was stressed, and some teammates around me. It was very emotional.”

After Canada had officially qualified, the team was grateful to be able to spend time together celebrating the accomplishment in Hungary. In addition to hearing from members of the staff, and hugs all around, a few players expressed their excitement with an impromptu dance party, breaking out into the worm. Paris will be the program's fourth consecutive Olympic Games, a feat that is certainly cause for celebration and one that any program would and should be proud of.

“You can see how dedicated [the members of this team are], how much we don’t take it for granted to wear the Canada on our chest and what an honour it is for us,” Alexander said. “I think it shows the dedication and the love that we have for this sport and playing with one another and our amazing staff that works with us throughout the entire year, not just when we’re together for training camps."

Alexander also had a special shout out to those fans back home who were right there with them on the edge of their seats Sunday morning.

"It also helps that we have amazing support from the nation behind us."