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Basketball Youth movement under way as players compete for spot on Canadian women’s basketball team

Canada’s Bridget Carleton protects the ball in this undated photo provided by FIBA.

HO/The Canadian Press

Bridget Carleton had a set of keys to the gym of her high school in Chatham, Ont., and would spend hours shooting on the court, with just the janitors to keep her company.

The 21-year-old Carleton, who’s currently at the Canadian women’s team camp in Edmonton, said the self-discipline she learned during those solitary shooting sessions has proved invaluable.

“I think that’s kind of been a huge part of my basketball career so far, especially coming from a small town, and there’s no Team Ontario, or national team coaches, there’s none of them in my city,” Carleton said between training sessions in Edmonton.

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“So (Canadian coaches) had kind of given me ideas of things to work on and then I had to take ownership of that myself and go do it. And when I’d see them, they expected me to have it down. So I think that’s where I found the love of my game, because if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t have done that stuff and I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am for sure.”

Carleton’s mom Carrie, who played at the provincial level, is a phys ed teacher at John McGregor Secondary School, and if she wasn’t free to rebound balls for her daughter, her keys to the gym were always available.

Carleton was part of the Canadian team that won its second straight FIBA Americas championship last summer. The six-foot-one guard carried that success into this past season at Iowa State, starting all 31 games, and averaging a team-best 19.2 and 6.5 rebounds. She also led the Cyclones in steals, blocks and three-pointers made.

She arrived at Canada’s team camp earlier this month “much further ahead than she was last year at this time with us,” said Canadian coach Lisa Thomaidis.

“I have just that much more confidence coming into the national team stuff because I was put in such a good position last year to improve on things I needed to improve on, and kind of learn how to score a variety of different ways,” said Carleton, whose parents regularly made the 11-hour drive to Ames for games.

“I was being guarded by some of the better athletes in the Big 12 every night almost. So it was just cool to play against some great players and be the go-to player on the Iowa State team, which has helped me a lot coming into this camp mentally.”

Carleton is among Canada’s pool of 26 women battling for a spot on the team for the FIBA women’s World Cup in September in Spain. The women – minus WNBA players Kia Nurse (New York Liberty), Natalie Achonwa (Indiana Fever), and Kayla Alexander (Indiana) – are in the first of three phases of summer training. Phase 1 culminates with three exhibition games against Turkey at Edmonton’s Saville Centre.

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The face of team has changed since Canada was eliminated in the quarter-finals and finished seventh at the Rio Olympics. Several veterans retired leaving a young core that is fast and athletic.

“A lot of younger girls who are just athletic and can get to the rim, and be creative off the dribble, and so it’s fun to be a part of that, kind of changing styles of play from what it was a couple of years ago,” Carleton said. “It’s a completely new look these last couple of years, with the athleticism of the team, and doing different things … just playing more uptempo and being more creative with what we can do offensively, and putting the pressure on defence.”

Thomaidis said the team tested out its new uptempo style, built around the type of players she knew she’d have available, last season, and found success.

“We were really putting an emphasis on pace and speed and pressure … faster pace is the big one, and utilizing our athleticism and dynamic ability,” she said. “We’ve got to keep ratcheting it up for sure. It’s all a process in terms of integrating these athletes when we get a chance to spend time with them, and showing them a different way of playing, and seeing how we adapt. So far so good.”

Kim Gaucher, who’s 34 and made her senior team debut in 2001, is back after taking a year off national team duty.

“It’s amazing to have her back in, she’s just such a strong leader and such a great role model especially for some of these younger athletes we have in this camp,” said Thomaidis.

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The Canadians, who are fifth in FIBA’s world rankings, will host No. 7 Turkey on July 4, 6 and 7. The Canadians will gather again in mid-July and then late-August before travelling to Spain for the World Cup, Sept. 22-30.

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