The 2014 women’s world basketball championship was a coming out party for Canada. The Canadians roared past France and China in the elimination round in Turkey, finishing fifth in Lisa Thomaidis’s world debut as the team’s head coach.
“That 2014 worlds was really a huge moment for us,” Thomaidis said. “It was a bit of a ‘here we are’ kind of moment, like we’re coming on the scene and making people stand up and take notice.”
The four years since their best world championship finish in 28 years have seen Canada solidify its spot among the world’s top teams, and on Saturday, Canada tips off the World Cup in Tenerife, Spain ranked a program-high fifth.
“I think we probably took some teams by surprise at that point in time,” Thomaidis said. ”But 2014, not too many expectations, and 2018 I would say there’s quite a few expectations.”
Indeed, Canada has been mentioned as a legitimate medal contender. The team’s target is to win a quarterfinal game, a step the Canadians have not been able to take since the team’s bronze at the 1986 world championships.
It’s a far different team than took the floor four years ago. Several veterans retired after Canada’s heartbreaking seventh-place finish at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Several young players such as Kia Nurse, Nirra Fields and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe have injected a big dose of athleticism. Once known as a strong defensive team, they’ve allowed Canada to push the pace on both ends.
“We were holding our own (in 2014) with the past style of play, we were very disciplined at both ends of the floor, we weren’t playing with a very fast pace, but we were disciplined and we were locked in defensively,” Thomaidis said. “In terms of personality, in terms of style of play, we’re quite different from that 2014 team. Trying to play much more up-tempo, trying to extend our defence, and having some dynamic players on the roster certainly changed the way we’ve been able to play, so that’s been fun.”
The Canadians open the 16-country tournament versus No. 20 Greece on Saturday, then play South Korea (No. 16) on Sunday, and France (No. 3) on Tuesday.
Canada is taking no team lightly. The World Cup is “such a tough competition,” Thomaidis said.
“There’s no easy games, so it is tough to do well in this tournament, as it should be, it’s the world championships. Teams that do well have to string together a number of very very solid games, and there’s no chance to get through if you’re not playing really well. And that really applies to us. When we’re good, we can be pretty good. When we’re not playing well, we can be beat by anyone. So that’s sort of the challenge that we’re faced with right now.”
Canada faces a Greek team that’s led by 39-year-old Evina Maltsi, a former WNBA player and Eurobasket MVP. Greece, said Thomaidis, can “really ride the emotion, and put together a very strong game.”
The Canadians expect their stiffest test to come against archrival France, which dispatched Canada in the quarterfinals at the Rio Olympics. The two met in a friendly last week, the French fighting off a fourth-quarter rally to beat Canada 72-68. Neither country though showed its full hand.
“They looked like they had a pretty small playbook … they really are just kinda playing with you, and seeing what you’re doing,” Thomaidis said. ”I imagine that next time we play them it will be quite different in terms of the actions that they run, and the number of minutes each player gets and things like that. We’ll see.”
The 46-year-old Thomaidis was a longtime assistant to Allison McNeill before McNeill retired in 2013. She’s also a five-time Canada West coach of the year and two-time U Sports national coach of the year with the University of Saskatchewan.
Thomaidis’s professional playing career was cut short by a chondral fracture of the patella and femur while playing in Greece.
“Unfortunate and unlucky, but at the same time super lucky,” she said. ”Had that not happened, I wouldn’t be in coaching.”
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press