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Canada basketball
Holly MacKenzie

Canadian women’s basketball team qualifies for Olympics with assist from Spain

The Canadian Senior Women’s National Team is going to Paris.

Though Canada dropped an 86-82 decision to Japan in their final game at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament on Sunday, a 73-72 victory by Spain against Hungary meant Canada has advanced to the 2024 Olympic Games.

“I have to say I’m very, very proud of my team,” Team Canada head coach Víctor Lapeña said after Canada's loss to Japan. “All they did today, not just today, I’m very proud of my players for the tournament. How we competed against Spain yesterday, we battled back twice. The basketball level against Hungary.

"I think these guys deserve to be in Paris 2024, but now we have to wait for the last game. And I trust in Spain, I trust in them because Spain never gives up, always competes. Always competes. We’ll see what happens.”

Lapeña’s words rang true as Spain completed a furious 22-point comeback to take a one-point lead in the final seconds and held off the host team, getting the win and also booking Canada’s trip to Paris.

“It is a complete rollercoaster when your fate is in someone else’s hands,” Canadian forward Natalie Achonwa said. “But it was so exciting when we got to celebrate the moment together knowing that our dreams and our goals survive another day and that we get to represent Canada in Paris 2024."

This is Canada’s fourth consecutive time qualifying for the Olympics and it will be the first time since 2000 that both the women’s and men’s teams have qualified for the Olympics.

Despite a 16-point, 14-rebound double-double from Kayla Alexander, 19 points from Bridget Carleton and 17 points from Nirra Fields, Canada couldn’t slow Japan down the stretch in Sunday’s loss.

“I’m really proud of our team for fighting today,” Achonwa said. “A couple of buckets go another way, a couple of foul calls go another way and it’s a different game."

In such a close game, seven missed free throws and 15 turnovers from Canada loomed large. Japan shot 19-for-21 from the line and had just four turnovers in the game as Mai Yamamoto and Evelyn Mawuli scored 21 points apiece in the win.

“First of all, congratulations to Japan,” Team Canada head coach Víctor Lapeña said. “They’re a great team. They played amazing today again, finding solutions. We knew we needed 80 points to win this kind of game against Japan because they score very easily, from different positions. Special congratulations to Evelyn Mawuli today, I think she was the difference, the great difference today in this game.”

Japan began to connect from deep in the second quarter as a three-pointer from Mawuli moved Japan in front by three. Another three-pointer, this time from Yamamoto, gave Japan an eight-point lead until Shay Colley completed a three-point play, and Carleton hit a pair of free throws to get Canada within three with 33 seconds remaining in the half.

A three from Yamamoto extended Japan’s lead back to six, but Sami Hill hit a pair of free throws to narrow the gap to four, 50-46, at the break.

The Canadians opened the third on a 6-0 run to move in front until a layup from Yamamoto to tie things up at 52 points apiece. After Carleton made one of two free throws to tie the game at 58 points apiece, a layup from Mawuli, followed by a three-pointer from Yamamoto put Japan up by six, 63-58.

Canada tied the game at 65 all on a layup from Fields, but Japan took a 70-67 lead into the final frame.

“Japan’s a really good team,” Carleton said. “We had a tough group. We lost two tough games to two really good teams. We fought hard, we scored a lot of points, but Japan’s really good. They’re hard to guard, they’re quick, they shoot threes really well.”

The score was close through the fourth, but Canada couldn’t close the gap. A layup from Fields tied the game at 79 points apiece with 4:36 remaining, but Japan never trailed in the quarter. Yamamoto put Japan up five with 41 seconds remaining and a pair of turnovers from Canada sealed the victory.

After qualifying for Paris in dramatic fashion, Canada doesn’t intend to leave anything else to chance.

“You can't take anything for granted,” Achonwa said. “We had an opportunity to control our destiny and we came up short. Thankfully, it still turned around in our favour and we’re still going to be in Paris and we will not take this chance lightly.

"We will prepare. We will work. We will once again dive into the commitment that it is to represent canada. I am so thrilled to have the opportunity, once again, to wear the Canada jersey across my chest.”