HAMILTON, Ont. (July 2, 2022) – Right from the opening tip, you knew that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was going to be in for a special night.
The soon-to-be 24-year-old set the tone immediately as he picked up a rolling ball off the opening tip, made a quick in-and-out move with his left hand to get past Dominican Republic centre Eloy Vargas, who had picked him up at right wing by the three-point line, and then exploded for a lefty dunk that Gilgeous-Alexander later said surprised himself as he had never thrown down a left-handed slam in his career before.
Looking back on the play, Gilgeous-Alexander couldn’t help but laugh and smile while in the moment.
The good vibes that he started the game with proved prophetic for how the rest of the contest would go as he led Canada to a 95-75 Canada Day victory over the Dominican Republic with a dominant line of 32 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks on 11-of-22 shooting from the floor and a 5-for-11 mark from deep as Canada’s Senior Men’s National Team improved to 5-0 in its FIBA Basketball World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign.
That Gilgeous-Alexander put up this monstrous performance while playing back home in Hamilton, Ont., since high school only made it more special.
“It was so fun,” said Gilgeous-Alexander after the game. “Just knowing that all the people that seen me grow from when I was in high school to see me play today.”
That home crowd welcomed Gilgeous-Alexander with an uproarious applaud and cheer when he was introduced before tip-off. It was so loud you can actually feel the rising crescendo in FirstOntario Centre upon his introduction.
Gilgeous-Alexander responded in kind with a remarkable performance as he looked to be making up for lost time with the national team after he was unable to participate last year in Victoria, B.C., for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament because of a foot injury.
Other highlights of Gilgeous-Alexander’s exceptional evening Friday was his monstrous third quarter where he scored 15 points alone in the frame. Canada entered the second half leading 46-36 and exited the third period having seen that lead ballooned to 76-48 on the strength of a 13-0 run over the last 2:07 of the frame that saw Gilgeous-Alexander score 11 points alone.
This run from Gilgeous-Alexander was capped by a three-pointer he hit in the left wing where, afterwards, he stuck out three fingers and saluted the crowd in an illustration of raw emotion.
Gilgeous-Alexander was back home, playing for his country, loving every second of it and his Canadian teammates were feeding off that energy.
“It’s fun to play with him, fun to watch, fun to witness,” said Kelly Olynyk of Gilgeous-Alexander after the game. “I think everybody here got a treat tonight.”
“He really knows how to play in the flow of the game,” Olynyk later added. “That’s something that’s kind of lost sometimes. He’s really good at it. Obviously, he’s a high-level player, super skilled on both ends of the floor. He changes the game, like you saw there in the third quarter. He just changed the game for us.”
Just about every member of the Canadian side looked to enjoying watching and playing alongside Gilgeous-Alexander Friday, but Nickeil Alexander-Walker, in particular, looked to be having a great time playing with his cousin again for the first time since high school.
“There was a little bit of rust to it but just playing off each other, just playing the game, playing to win, turned out to be fun,” Alexander-Walker said.
Added Gilgeous-Alexander: “I still think we were getting a little kinks out to start the game, but I think both of us just made the right play and trusted each other. The offence was flowing. We looked good."
As big a game as Gilgeous-Alexander had, Alexander-Walker probably had the most memorable moment when he drilled a shot from about five feet back of half court as time expired on the first quarter.
Overall, Friday was a great experience for the two NBA-playing cousins, especially with all the family in attendance.
“There’s nothing like game experience and ultimately getting back together, being home, playing in front of friends and family,” Alexander-Walker said. “The way he went off in the third quarter, I just made sure he knew to keep going. He got hot and thankfully we pulled out the win.”
Canada Day is always special, regardless of the circumstances, but for Gilgeous-Alexander, it proved to be even more so this year.
“It was super fun and I knew this day was coming and it went just how I wanted it to.”