Canadian women's basketball team eyeing Olympic podium

Canada's Natalie Achonwa, right, seen in September 2022.  (Kelly Defina/Getty Images - image credit)
Canada's Natalie Achonwa, right, seen in September 2022. (Kelly Defina/Getty Images - image credit)

With no anthem singer at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre for an exhibition game between Canada's senior women's basketball team and Portugal, the home squad stood arm in arm and joined fans in singing O Canada ahead of the Olympic tuneup in Victoria on Wednesday night.

While the game itself was a rout, with Canada winning 91-65, the scenes at the beginning were emotional for Canada team captain Natalie Achonwa.

"I teared up. Every time I hear the anthem, I'm reminded I'm representing so much more than myself. It just hits home." the six-foot-three forward told CBC News following the game, adding that representing Canada is something she never takes lightly.

Canada's Natalie Achonwa, left, scored 16 points during a 77-68 win over Puerto Rico on Sunday in FIBA Women's Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournament action in Medellín, Colombia.
Canada's Natalie Achonwa, left, scored 16 points during a 77-68 win over Puerto Rico on Sunday in FIBA Women's Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournament action in Medellín, Colombia.

Canada's Natalie Achonwa, left, scored 16 points during a 77-68 win over Puerto Rico in an Olympic pre-qualifying tournament action in Medellín, Colombia last fall. (Mark Baker/The Associated Press)

The 2024 Paris Olympic Games begin on July 26, with Canada's first game in the women's basketball tournament on July 29 against France. The event will mark Achonwa's fourth Olympic Games.

"I try not to think too far into the future, but right now I am where my feet are, and that means I got to put on a Canada jersey," Achonwa said. "You only get to represent your country in two places — war and in sport — and I will do that with the greatest honour every time."

A month from Paris 

On the court Wednesday, Canada — currently ranked fifth in FIBA world rankings — saw guard Nirra Fields score a team-high 18 points and Achonwa tack on 16 as they dominated 46th-ranked Portugal.

"I think we played really well," Fields said. "There were times where we were just not doing what we were supposed to do on defence, so we lacked a little bit there. Overall, we did well on offence and defence throughout the game."

Canada's Nirra Fields, seen above in September 2022,
Canada's Nirra Fields, seen above in September 2022,

Canada's Nirra Fields, seen above in September 2022, (Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

Four players were absent from the contest: Kia Nurse, Bridget Carleton, Laeticia Amihere, and Aaliyah Edwards, who were with their WNBA teams.

The addition of four WNBA players to the roster is promising for fans hoping for a strong showing in Paris. However, with 15 players flying to Victoria for a women's pre-Olympic training camp in addition to four Canadians playing in the WNBA, decisions will have to be made as just 12 players will make the final Olympic roster.

"It's not easy to develop this team because we have some very good players in the WNBA," said Canadian women's basketball team head coach Victor Lapeña, adding that he is thankful for the players in Victoria for trusting him and the process as they gear up for the Olympics.

"We have one more month to get ready for our first game against France."

The squad heads to Europe in later this month to participate in additional training camps and exhibition games.

"We got to see what is working and what's not," forward Kayla Alexander said following Wednesday's game. "Just continue to build on what we have so far and [continue] getting ready so by the time we get to Paris, we're good to go."

Eyeing the podium

The Canadian women's basketball team has never earned a medal at the Olympics.

The Paris Games will mark their eighth Olympic appearance, and this iteration of the team hopes to make history.

"Everyone knows we want to get a gold medal," Fields said. "That's definitely the goal."

Alexander, 33, has a similar mindset as the Games approach.

"I think all of our goals are to get on the podium," Alexander said. "To play our hearts out, to play great Canadian basketball, play great basketball together.

"And get on that podium."