The Canadian women’s national basketball took a promising step forward heading into an Olympic qualifier next month.
Kim Smith of Mission, B.C., had 20 points and eight rebounds as Canada opened up a three-game series with China with a 78-66 win Wednesday.
It was the opening game of the annual Jack Donohue International Classic, which this year features a three-game set versus the visiting Chinese team.
While showcasing the national program to fans from the B.C. Lower Mainland, the main purpose of the exhibition is to prepare the team for an Olympic qualifying tournament in Turkey next, beginning June 25.
“Any time you play someone other than yourselves you learn a lot,” said head coach Allison McNeill. “One thing we found out is what we’ve been working on doesn’t always show up here. We had moments of greatness and moments of ‘whose team is that’ so we have to be more consistent in our execution.”
Miranda Ayim of London, Ont., who was the player of the game for the Canadians, added 12 points, six rebounds and three assists.
“Kim Smith played very well,” said McNeill, before rattling off the 28-year-old’s scoring line. “She played well and so did Miranda Ayim. Natalie Achonwa came off the bench and did a couple things for us. Krista Phillips, up against the big girl (China’s Wei Wei), had some really good passes. And Teresa Gabriele was a steady influence for us and has been for 14 years.”
Phillips was defending six-foot-nine Wei most of the game, holding her to 6-of-10 shooting, and also picked up 13 points.
Achonwa, who joined the team just 10 days ago because of university commitments, also scored 12 points.
Song Gao was named player of the game for the visitors with 12 points, two rebounds and three assists.
Wei led China with 17 points and added five blocks.
Canada opened the game on a 12-4 run but only led 36-35 at the half when China clawed back, including back-to-back three-pointers.
“Our focus has been executing offensively and limiting score-backs, which is us scoring them coming back and scoring on us,” said Gabriele, also of Mission, B.C., just a 30-minute drive from the Langley Events Centre. “We knew they were going to be one of the top teams in the world, but it’s not so much about them right now but about us improving.”
After the third quarter Canada had opened a 56-47 lead on the back of rebounding and a string of three-pointers. Canada outrebounded China 34-13.
Canada women built a 14-point lead with seven minutes to go and held on for the win.
China got back within nine points with just under five minutes to play but Chelsea Aubry’s field goal just as the shot clock expired seemed to end any Chinese comeback attempt.
The Chinese were coming off a pair of games in the United States last week against the Los Angeles Sparks in Pasadena, Calif., and versus the U.S. national team in Seattle.
No. 7 China, fourth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has already booked its ticket to the London Olympics and is using the three-game series on B.C.’s lower mainland as a tune-up for the Games.
Canada, meanwhile, failed to qualify through the FIBA Americas championships in September, but earned a spot in the last-chance qualifier.
“We played with poise and I think that’s important,” said Phillips. “This is great practice going into Turkey.”
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.
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.
They’re gunning for their first Olympic appearance since the 2000 Games in Sydney.
The second match against China is Thursday at the Richmond Oval and it concludes Friday in Abbotsford at the University of the Fraser Valley.
“Maybe they’re tired from travel so they’re going to come out tougher,” said Gabriele of the Chinese team, who was seen being put through the paces after the game by head coach Fengwu Sun.
Despite the convincing victory on the scoreboard, there is room for improvement for the Canadians.
“We shot it extremely well tonight,” McNeill said. “I’m not sure we can do that for three nights. And China is a very big team. I felt we let their bigs have a lot of looks and open shots so we have to be more aggressive on the ball.”