Practice pays off as McNeill’s team puts on clinic

By Howard Tsumura
Vancouver Province
June 5, 2012

In camp for two weeks of hard training, the Canadian women’s national basketball team was getting a little tired of running its half-court offence against each other in practice every day.

“Practice is great,” Canadian post Krista Phillips said Wednesday after Team Canada opened its three-game Jack Donahue International Classic against Team China at the Langley Events Centre. “But we needed to play some-one that didn’t know our offence as well.”

If the Canadians, who will vie for one of five remaining berths to the London Olympics at the FIBA qualifying tournament late next month in Turkey, needed any kind of vindication that their offence can give a world power problems, they got all the proof they needed Wednesday.

En route to topping No. 7-ranked China 78-66, the No. 11-ranked Canadians put on a clinic in deter-mined, dynamic half-court basketball. They screened, they cut, they hustled for loose balls, and they shot an incredible 60 per cent from the field on their way to the win.

In fact, if you were filming an instructional DVD for coaches, you could have just used huge chunks of the game, including the first five minutes, when Canada came out and hit its first six shots from the field and built a 14-6 lead.

“This is what we have been focusing on for the last three years, and it takes time to get chemistry on the floor,” said Canadian skipper Allison McNeill.

“China hadn’t seen us in a while and I know they will play bet-ter. But we played extremely well tonight, and if we execute, we can shoot it. That is one thing we can do.”

Actually, Canada did so many things so well, that even though they allowed China to shoot 50 per cent from the field for the game, they still turned in a solid defensive performance.

But that offence? Led by the hustle factor and length of Miranda Ayim, and the rifle-scope aim of Kim Smith, Canada played a game that set the bar for efficiency.

It not only shot 60 per cent from the field, it shot 50 per cent (6-of-12) from beyond the three-point arc, and it did not miss a free throw the entire night (12-of-12).

And matched up against a Chinese team that featured 6-foot-9 Wei Wei and five others 6-foot-2 or taller, Canada tripled the Chinese in rebounding (34-to-13), and on the same glass, got more offensive rebounds (11) than the Chinese had defensive rebounds (nine).

Still, the Canadian style is blue collar. And when feet stop moving and communication stops happening, the whole thing can fall apart.

At one stage in the second quarter, China rallied with an 8-0 run to take a 27-24 lead, forcing McNeill to call for time. Once back, Canada went on a 10-4 run and never surrendered momentum the rest of the way.

“We just got away from what we do,” said McNeill afterwards, as her team prepared to face China tonight at the Richmond Olympic Oval and Friday at the University of the Fraser Valley in a pair of 7 p.m. starts. “We have to be humble. We know who we are and we know what we have to do to win. We can’t be what we’re not and we got away from that. But to our credit, we got it right back.”

Mission native Smith put on a show for her B.C. fans, knocking down four triples as part of a game-high 20 points. She also had eight rebounds and five assists.

And rising young star Ayim, who finished with 12 points, was a head-turning factor at both ends of the floor. The last cut of the national team in 2010, she effectively turned the tide of the con-test from a two-possession affair in the third quarter into a double-digit Canadian lead down the stretch drive.

First a pass inside for a Natalie Achonwa lay-in. Then, after she made a steal, she sank a shake-and-bake turnaround jumper from 15 feet against China’s 6-foot-5 Nan Chen. She capped it by drawing contact and hitting two free throws to give Canada an eight-point lead (49-41) late in the third.

“Two years playing in Turkey has changed her,” admitted McNeill of the 6-foot-3 native of London, Ont. “It’s amazing what she has done in two years. Her improvement has been incredible.”

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