Canada’s women’s basketball team opened the Olympics with a 72-68 loss to Serbia on Monday, a blow out of the gate to a team intent on climbing the medal podium in Tokyo.
Nirra Fields led Canada with a game-high 19 points, while Kia Nurse had 16 points and six rebounds for the Canadians, who who had to dig themselves out of a double-digit deficit because of poor first-half shooting. Shay Colley added 12 points before leaving the game with an apparent right shoulder injury in the third quarter.
Sonja Vasic had 16 points for Serbia, which shot 8-of-17 from beyond the arc.
The fourth-ranked Canadians struggled on the offensive end for much of the night, trailing by as many as 11 points early on. A solid third quarter saw them lead briefly, and the two teams went into the fourth quarter tied at 45-45.
The game was tied at 4:25 to play, thanks to a Nurse layup, but three consecutive Serbia three-pointers had the 2021 EuroBasket champions up by seven.
Trailing by five, a Fields three-pointer sliced the difference to two points with 51 seconds to play. But Jelena Brooks replied with a basket, before Nurse’s free throw on a Serbia technical made it a three-point game over the dying seconds.
A lengthy video review over possession gave Canada the ball with 13.6 second to play. A Pellington free throw pulled the Canadians within a point, but Dabovic scored with two seconds to play to clinch the win.
The Canadians face No. 19 South Korea on Thursday in the 12-team tournament, then face third-ranked Spain on Sunday. Spain held on to edge South Korea 73-69 in the earlier game Monday.
Canada’s full team was playing together for the first since it qualified for the Olympics way back in February of 2020. The pandemic kept the players apart for the better part of the 18 months since, forced to connect via Zoom chats.
Most of the team finally gathered for camp in May in Tampa, Fla., setting up shop in the Toronto Raptors’ temporary practice facility there. But the team’s trio of Canada’s WNBA players - Nurse, Natalie Achonwa, and Bridget Carleton - rejoined the team less than two weeks ago.
The Canadians’ only official FIBA action since the start of the pandemic was a fourth-place finish at the FIBA AmeriCup regional tournament in Puerto Rico last month.
Because of Tokyo’s state of emergency amid the pandemic, the game was played in front of no fans in what felt like a cavernous 47,000-seat Saitama Super Arena, about an hour’s drive north of downtown Tokyo. Music played throughout the game, but there was no piped-in artificial fan noise.
Canada shot just 28 per cent in the first half, and will lament the number of missed open looks. Shay Colley’s three-pointer a minute into the game was Canada’s first basket - and the Canadians wouldn’t connect from long distance until Colley’s three with 6:57 to play in the third quarter, going 1-for-10 through the first half.
Serbia, the 2016 Olympic bronze medallist, led 16-13 after one quarter, and went up by as many as 11 before taking a 36-28 advantage into the halftime break.
Nurse scored seven points in a pivotal third quarter for Canada, and when the Phoenix Mercury guard drove to the hoop for a layup with 1:59 left, the Canadians went up 42-40 - their first lead of the game. Canada shot 42 per cent in the frame.
One negative on the night was the loss of Shay Colley in the third quarter. Colley, who scored 10 points in her Olympic debut before leaving the game, went down hard on her right shoulder when diving for a loose ball. She grimaced in pain on the sidelines while a member of Canada’s medical staff attended to her the rest of the game.
Achonwa’s presence was good news for the Canadian team. The Minnesota Lynx forward sprained her medial collateral ligament in her right knee, missing the last 10 WNBA games. It was tough-and-go whether the three-time Olympian would recover in time for Tokyo. She started and played with a brace on the knee.
A top-two finish in their group guarantees a spot in the quarterfinals - but winning the group would give Canada a more favourable opponent in the next round. The top two third-place teams also advance, while the fourth-place teams are eliminated.
The Canadians lost in the quarter-finals at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, to eventual champion United States in 2012 in London, and then to France in ’16 when their shooting when cold in the fourth quarter.
A silver by Canada’s men’s team in 1936 is the country’s only Olympic medal in the sport.
The Canadian men haven’t played on the Olympic stage since 2000 in Sydney, losing to the Czech Republic in the semifinals of their last-chance qualifying tournament last month in Victoria.