Courtesy of Courtnay Pilypaitis, the Canadian Women’s Team will be making its first appearance at the Olympics since Sydney 2000. The former Vermont standout put together an impressive offensive and defenseive effort putting up 21 points and six assists in the final game of the 2012 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament for Women in Ankara, Turkey, to lead Canada to a 71-63 win over Japan and the final remaining berth at the 2012 London Olympics.
Pilypaitis had a solid all-around defensive effort on one of Japan’s leading scorers, Yuko Oga -- earning the tournament’s Canadian Team MVP honors. Moreover, while the 6-1 guard has not been particularly known for her three-point shooting in the past, Pilypaitis will most definitely be scouted as a major three-point threat after draining five treys, out of nine attempts (55.6%), to change the momentum of the game in Canada’s favor.
Longtime Canadian national team veteran Teresa Gabrielle pitched in, putting 11 points on the scoreboard, handing out five assists (23 of Canada’s 26 field goals came off assists) and hauling down seven rebounds, while 6-6 center Krista Phillips led the way on the boards with eight rebounds, five of them off the offensive glass, to go with her nine points and three assists.
And one must not overlook the contribution of forward Lizanne Murphy, who swatted down an amazing five shot attempts, several of them with athletic leaps from beyond the three-point line, including one that thwarted a Japanese comeback late in the game.
Japan fought back tears while bowing bravely to their impressively large and enthusiastic crowd of fans, some of whom had followed the team to Turkey all the way from Japan, but others including Turks and other nationals who had come to admire both the fast-paced, aggressive style of the Japanese team and the emotional intensity they had displayed to reach the final.
Japan had stunned Korea, a team they had never previously beaten, in Saturday’s semifinal, opening the game with a 32-4 run. The Koreans tried to rally, but by the break Japan lead 47-20.
Japan continued to control the third period, padding their lead by five more points, then coasted the rest of the way to an historic 79-51 win. Oga, who has long been the face of Japanese women’s basketball, was the hero in that victory, leading the way with 20 points, plus six rebounds and five steals, in that game. But in the final, Canada's Pilypaitis held Oga to just 11 points.
|Yuko Oga celebrates Japan's historic win over Korea in Saturday's Olympic Qualifying Tournament semifinal. But after being held to just 11 points in Sunday's final against Canada, the Japanese players struggled to maintain their composure as they bowed to the crowd that had cheered them on. (Photo courtesy fiba.com)|
Canada, too, had to overcome Argentina, a semifinal adversary they had been unable to defeat for years in order to reach the Olympic Qualifying Tournament’s final. Most recently, a last-minute steal for the go-ahead fast-break layup by Argentina’s Marina Cava in the final seconds of last summer’s FIBA America’s tournament, with the score tied at 59 apiece, sent Canada to the bronze medal game, dashing Canadian hopes of a direct pass into the Olympics.
This time, however, Canada handed Argentina a 58-41 beat-down, but one that was administered in a less flashy, incremental fashion than Japan’s stunning upset of Korea. The two teams started out looking evenly matched, fighting their way to a virtual draw over the first 10 minutes, which ended with the scoreboard showing 16-15 in Canada’s favor.
In the second, vaunted Canadian defense went to work, holding the Argentines to just four points, and while their own scoring was less than prolific -- 10 points in the second quarter – Canada gradually began to take control.
The defense continued to keep Argentina in lockdown as Canada slowly stretched its lead to double digits, 36-25, by the end of the third period. The gloves came off in the final stanza as the Canadians, again led by Pilypaitis, who finished with 12 points and Murphy, who posted 11, outscored Argentina, 22-16, to end the Olympic dreams of the young Argentines.
Twenty-two year-old Andrea Boquete, was the only Argentine player to reach double figures, with 11 points, while 19-year old guard Maria Gretter, whose outstanding 17-point performance in Friday’s loss to Turkey had put her on the map in international women’s basketball competition, was held to just six against Canada.
The Canadian win set up Sunday’s final showdown between Canada and Japan. The two teams have not faced each other in formal international competition since the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, when the Japanese drove a stake through the heart of the Canadians’ quarterfinals hopes by handing them a 95-85 loss.
Still, “Japan’s a team we know well. We’ve played them a lot in exhibition,” explained Canada’s Murphy, looking ahead to Sunday’s match-up. Canada’s preparations for the FIBA Americas Championships and the Qualifying Tournament included a series of exhibition games in Europe and Asia that included a trip to Japan last year.
“They move very quickly,” Murphy continued. “I think it’s a team that may struggle a little bit with our size, but we’re just going to have to contain their penetration.”
And that’s exactly what Canada did for much of the game. Canada led from the opening tip to the final buzzer, starting with an 11-0 run by as Krista Phillips. Japan quickly recovered over the next six-and-a-half minutes of the first period, which ended with Canada still on top, 21-11.
Early in the second, back-to-back threes by Pilypaitis extended the Canadian lead to its widest margin of the half, 27-15. Japan's sharpshooters were relatively quiet as Canada successful defended the perimeter limiting Japan to just three-of-14 (21.4 percent) from beyond the arc on the day. Still, Japan successfully attacked the basket, shaving the Canadian lead to six to close the half at 37-31, with the game still very much in play.
“We’ve been struggling with our starts all summer,” Pilypaitis explained after the game. “And I think we just really knew we had to set the tone and tell Japan that we were here to play. We just had a great start and we just rode that all the way through.”
Out of the break, Canada again took charge, padding their lead to 15 points midway through the third quarter, but Japan closed the period with an 8-0 run to keep the game within reach.
The two teams headed into the final stanza with Canada still on top, 52-42, and both sides showing signs of fatigue from the weeklong tournament and emotional semifinal games. As Canada seemed content to defend its advantage, showing very little motion on the offensive end and loitering outside the three-point arc for most of each shot clock rather than working the ball inside, Japan seized the momentum, successfully moving the ball back door and mounting a 14-2 run to make it a one-possession game. At the time, it looked like Canada might be headed for a fourth-quarter collapse reminiscent of its quarterfinal loss to Croatia, in which Canada, after leading for much of the game, blew the five-point lead they had held to start the fourth quarter and sank to a 59-56 defeat.
This time, however, one-possession down was as close as Japan would come. Pilypaitis righted the Canadian ship, knocking down yet another from beyond the arc to give Canada a bit more breathing room. Over the final minutes, Japan turned to a foul strategy. Some might say too early, given Canada’s propensity to turn the ball over under pressure, as well as its nearly 80-percent success rate at the free throw line.
But with the pressure on, the Canadians faltered at the line, repeatedly knocking down just one-of-two to leave Japan an opening. But though Canada shot an uncharacteristically low 55.6 percent from the charity stripe in the game, they knocked down just enough to survive. Meanwhile, the Canadian defense stiffened, all but shutting out the Japanese down the stretch, and Japan’s hopes of a final rally flagged as its leading scorer, 6-1 center Yuka Mamiya picked up her fifth personal, bowing to the court and the crowd as the fouled out of the game.
Despite its slow start, Japan has nothing to be ashamed of in their solid team effort that saw four players finish in double figures, with starters Maki Takada (forward) joining Mamiya with 14 points apiece, shooting guard Rika Tanaka chipping in 10, and Oga coming off the bench for 11.
In the end, however, it was rebounding – as much as stifling defense and Pilypaitis’ marksmanship – that carried the day for Canada. Canada outrebounded Japan, 39-19, including a 12-4 advantage on the offensive glass, which not only meant more possessions and second-chance looks for Canada but also prevented the Japanese from ever really getting their lightning-fast transition game underway.
Canada pulled off the win despite being without the services of Notre Dame's rising junior Natalie Achonwa, who injured her ankle after playing just six minutes in Friday's semifinal victory over Argentina. The injury was minor and Achonwa is "expected to be cleared to resume competition well before her country begins action at the Olympics later this month," according to a spokesman for Notre Dame women's basketball.
“It’s Canada Day today, so we thought we’d give our country the best present ever,” said an elated Pilypaitis after the game. “I couldn’t be prouder of our team. We’ve worked so hard and we had such a devastating loss in the quarterfinals. We really felt that we had that game and we just wanted to redeem ourselves and not have any regrets.
“I’m so happy that we’re going to London with such a great group of girls,” Pilypaitis continued.
As for her own role in her team’s success, Pillypaitis was modest. “My teammates just gave me the ball. You know, our offense is so spread out that anyone can have a great day, and today was my day. My teammates just made it so easy for me to hit shots.”
Canada Basketball President Wayne Parrish picked up on Pilypaitis’ theme in a statement released by Canada Basketball.
“I’d say this is the ultimate Canada Day!” said Parrish. “ To come back after Friday's loss is nothing less than spectacular. Their resilience has been remarkable. It was inspiring to see the way Courtnay developed this past week, and to see Teresa [Gabrielle] succeed in her quest to get back to the Olympic Games after 12 long years of incredible dedication."
"They say it takes 10,000 hours to make an Olympic champion,” Parrish continued. “I suspect head coach Allison McNeill, together with Mike (McNeill) and Lisa (Thomaidis), have put in a lot more than that since 2002.”
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