It’s still early days, but the era of Victor Lapina is off to an exciting start.
The Spain international and the recently appointed coach of the Canadian women’s national team led to an impressive 2-0 start at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Australia, building momentum with wins over No. 10 ranked Serbia and No. 6 France, as they head into a crucial match with Japan – Olympic silver medalists a year ago – Sunday.
In an already strong position, another Mali win and 0-2 loss should secure Canada a place on the medal round as they try to finish the season among the top four of the six teams in Group B. With a difference of +21 points, Canada has an indoor track not only to be in the top four, but to finish in the top three in the group and avoid a quarter-final encounter with the #1 ranked United States as the strength of the women’s rings goes through the other side of the lottery in the first group .
If they can pull that off Canada’s path to the medal, it’ll be as wide open as ever.
It’s all speculative and fun to think about as the fourth-ranked Canadians find their feet under the leadership of Lappina and principal assistant Noel Quinn, who are brought in to replace Lisa Thomides, but it’s clear early on that the new hires are well connected with a roster generously mixed with new and familiar faces.
Among the players who have seen their roles expand under Lappina is veteran quarterback Kayla Alexander, who averaged just three minutes at last summer’s Olympics as Canada finished a disappointing ninth, but started both games in Australia. Alexander is averaging 31 minutes through two games in Australia and responded by putting in 11 points and 10.5 rebounds per match.
With veteran goalkeeper Kia Nurse’s duration restricted to 20 minutes per competition after surgery for an ACL tear, more minutes were distributed to Nera Fields and Shay Cooley in the backcourt rotation, and both went up. Fields were particularly excellent, and her ability to smash through defenses was on full display against France on Friday morning as they held Canada with 17 points from 16 shots, many of them self-made against a stingy French defense.
As a group, Canada has continued the high defensive standards for which it is famous over the past decade, keeping Serbia and France at 37.6 percent and 30.6 percent, respectively.
However, there are still some areas of concern. One is Canada’s insult, which hasn’t flowed the way it probably would have needed if Lapina were to maintain their momentum and potentially play for a medal for the first time since winning bronze in 1986.
With a limited nurse presence and in the wake of the retirements of veterans Miranda Ayim, Kim Boucher and Nyew Rincock Econoe, Bridget Carlton is one candidate to help fill the void. The four-year WNBA veteran graduated from Iowa State as the second-highest scorer in school history, but wasn’t quite able to bring her much-needed shooting and shooting to the national team stage on a consistent basis.
There were sightings: I went out for 28 points on 11 of 12 shots against Bosnia and Herzegovina in the World Cup qualifiers in February, for example, but so far in Sydney, Carlton is only 4 of 20 off the ground and 2 of 10 out of three.
The 25-year-old is now appearing in her third major world competition for Canada, and is hoping the best is yet to come.
“I always know what I’m capable of. I’m proud of myself as an athlete, as a basketball player, I take pride in doing the right things on the court. In Iowa, I knew my role: I was expected to do a lot of shots, do a lot of plays, and bounce the ball— I broke the record for field goal attempts at that school for a reason,” Carlton joked in a pre-tournament interview. “Then move on to the WNBA, where I’m a role player and I’m expected to be efficient, take the right shots, make good decisions, and don’t shoot too much…
“My involvement with the national team started in this way: the last world championships I didn’t see the stadium much at all. [But] Here we are four years later, where I was expected to be a great player…
“Victor wants me to bring some of that flair back, to take some risks. To take some tough shots sometimes, don’t just take wide open shots but be creative and put myself on the court a little bit more. I feel more comfortable doing it at this level. He will surely get there.”
Her teammates know she has it.
“When you come on new teams, you start in one role and evolve. The more time you spend on a team, the more time you spend on a team, the more your role type expands,” says Natalie Ashunwa, who plays for the Minnesota Lynx at the WNBA. So when you’re coming from a [college] Team to WNBA Team to National Team, these roles continue to evolve.
“Now I think Bridget is finding her footing here in the national team programme, and that as a top scorer as a captain and someone who will take on a bigger role for us in this tournament going forward.
“So I think we saw a great glimpse of her in February and I can’t wait to see how she continues to develop here in this tournament, because spending so much time with Bridget, both in the WNBA and here on the national team, I know she has her and she has those capabilities so there’s nothing left Nothing but doing it right?”
The good news is that Canada has already positioned itself well for long stays in Australia; Carlton will get her chances.
With team-wide defensive energy and contributions from the likes of Fields and Alexander, should Carlton’s scoring touch start to heat up, Lapina’s team could start thinking about ending their run with a medal ceremony for the first time in nearly 40 years.