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Simon Fraser University women's basketball head coach Allison McNeill poses at her Langley, B.C. home in this Feb.17, 1999 photo. McNeill has taken over as head coach of Canada’s women’s basketball team, succeeding good friend and former high school teammate Bev Smith. (Ian Lindsay/CP)
Simon Fraser University women's basketball head coach Allison McNeill poses at her Langley, B.C. home in this Feb.17, 1999 photo. McNeill has taken over as head coach of Canada’s women’s basketball team, succeeding good friend and former high school teammate Bev Smith. (Ian Lindsay/CP)

Canada-China women's basketball series a perfect sendoff for qualifying Add to ...

Canada’s women’s basketball team had two shots at berths at the London Olympics – with 10 long months in between.

But rather than spending those months fretting about their Olympic future, coach Allison McNeill prefers to think it was time well spent.

The Canadians open a three-game exhibition series versus China on Wednesday, as they hit the home stretch – finally – in their quest for a berth at the Games. Canada failed to qualify through the FIBA Americas championships in September, but earned a spot in the last-chance qualifier June 25–July 1 in Ankara, Turkey.

“In many ways it turned out to be a good thing for us because we were still a little young last year, during the (first) qualifier, and I feel like we’ve got a few players that have another year of pro under their belt,” McNeill said Tuesday.

“Hopefully we’re just a little bit better to go to the second qualifier.”

No. 7 China, fourth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has already booked its ticket to London and is using the three-game series on B.C.’s lower mainland as a tune-up for the Games.

“They’ll be a great test for us, to see where we’re at for sure,” McNeill said.

The Canadians have eight returning members of the squad that played at the world championships two years ago, including experienced veterans like Kim Smith and Teresa Gabriele, both of Mission, B.C., and Chelsea Aubry of Kitchener, Ont. They’re gunning for their first Olympic appearance since the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Following the China series, the team will hold a brief camp in Toronto before travelling to France to play the host team, plus Great Britain, Croatia and Czech Republic, before heading to Turkey.

“Because we have a core group that’s been at worlds, we sort of looked and said, ‘OK what’s the best way to prep this group. Is it more training against each other?’ No. We don’t think so,” McNeill said.

Women’s soccer is the only Canadian team that has qualified for London. The men’s basketball team was knocked out at its FIBA Americas tournament without earning a second chance.

McNeill admitted watching other Canadian athletes and teams go through their qualifying – coupled with the long wait for their own shot – has been stressful. She and several players were closely following Canada’s men’s volleyball team in its qualifying tournament last week which went down to the final heartbreaking game – the Canadians lost to the U.S. which ended their shot at the Olympics.

“You know what, it’s very emotional,” McNeill said. “We’ve been working with our sports psychologist, talking about everybody’s attachment to results, you get focused on getting there and being there and how hard you’ve worked.

“We’re working very hard with our sports psychologist on just staying in the moment, enjoying the moment, and being ready to play our best just because we want to play our best and the outcome will take care of ourselves.

“We’re also trying to grab onto some positive momentum in thinking about all the people who have qualified.”

The Canadians must finish top-five in the second-chance tournament to earn a spot in London. Canada is the fourth-ranked team in the tournament at No. 11. The Czech Republic is top-ranked at No. 4, Mozambique is at the bottom of the rankings in 37th.

“We feel that there are five berths and there is no reason why we can’t get one of them,” McNeill said. “We’re not going to this tournament just happy to be there, we really feel like we deserve to be there and we are in contention for one of those five berths.

“Definitely we’re as ready with this program as we’ve ever been.”

The three-game series versus China, McNeill said, is the perfect Olympic sendoff for her team. The games are Wednesday in Langley, Thursday in Richmond, and Friday in Abbotsford.

“Just my nature – and our players and staff feel the same way – it’s just good to promote our game,” she said. “It will be nice to have our home support.”

Canada was drawn in a pool with No. 8 France and No. 19 Mali for the Olympic qualifying event.