OSTEND, BELGIUM (February 9, 2020) -- The Canadian Senior Women’s National Team closed out their campaign at the FIBA Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament with another win. Thanks to a thrilling 70-68 victory over Japan on Sunday, in addition to qualifying for Tokyo 2020 with a win against Sweden on Saturday, Canada will leave Belgium with an undefeated 3-0 record.

Kia Nurse scored 19 points and Natalie Achonwa added 18 as Canada held on down the stretch to secure the victory. Nurse finished the tournament second in scoring, averaging 16.0 points per game. Achonwa finished fourth in scoring, averaging 13.0 points, first in field-goal percentage, shooting 74.1 percent, and third in rebounding, averaging 6.3 rebounds per game.

In addition to her 18 points in Sunday’s game, Achonwa was named to the All-Star Five from the tournament, joining Belgium’s Emma Meesseman and Julie Allemand and Japan’s Saki Hayashi and Ramu Tokashiki. Hayashi led all scorers with 21 points in Sunday's game.

“This is a great win for us tonight,” team captain Kim Gaucher said in a post-game interview. “Japan is a team we know is going to be in the Olympics and we wanted to send a message tonight that we’re coming to Tokyo to try to win a medal.”

Though Canada walked away with the win, the game went down to the final buzzer. Canada led by seven after a steal and a layup from Achonwa with under two minutes to go before a 5-0 run by Japan trimmed the lead to two with 22 seconds remaining. Nurse put Canada back ahead by four after hitting a pair of free throws with 12 seconds on the clock, but Hayashi drilled a three to bring Japan within one. After Bridget Carleton went one of two from the free-throw line, Canada held a two-point lead with 0.3 seconds remaining. Japan would get a final attempt, but were unable to get the shot off before the final buzzer sounded.

Though the Canadians had already qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Women’s Olympic Basketball Competition with an 80-50 victory against Sweden on Saturday, the team wanted Sunday’s game.

“We set out a goal to go 3-0 [in Belgium],” Achonwa said. “For us to win all three games was a great test today because we did qualify yesterday. Trying to regroup as athletes and as staff and trying to focus on today [was important], because this was a test for the Olympics and preparing for Japan. We’re super happy we were able to come out with a win and achieve that short-term goal.”

With little time together between tournaments, head coach Lisa Thomaidis was especially pleased with how her team performed in Belgium.

“We’re happy to go 3-0,” she said. “I think this team really showed a lot of growth and improvement from the November window to now. I’m really happy with how they came together. We worked on some things remotely that we were able to implement here. [We're] really happy to see that growth and really proud of the achievements we were able to get here this past weekend.”

Almost immediately it was obvious that Sunday’s game was going to be a played at a different pace than Canada’s previous two games in the tournament. Through the first half, the teams traded baskets, with Japan leading 17-15 after the opening quarter. Canada would retake the lead to hold a slim 31-30 advantage at the half.

Nurse opened the scoring in the second half, hitting her second three-pointer of the game to give Canada a 34-30 advantage. A three from Carleton extended Canada’s lead to five and then back-to-back buckets from Achonwa extended it to nine, Canada’s largest advantage of the game. Japan responded with a three from Yuka Osaki and a layup from Asami Yoshida to get back within four.

A jumper from Nurse kept Canada ahead by six, 47-41, with three minutes to go in the third, but then a steal and score from Hayashi cut the lead to four and Canada called a timeout to talk things over. After Hayashi and Nurse traded three-pointers, Canada again led by six, but another three from Japan, this time from Rui Machida, trimmed Canada’s lead to 52-49, heading into the fourth.

Much like their game against Sweden on Saturday, Canada’s defensive intensity went up another notch after halftime. Canada finished the game shooting 41 percent from the floor, while Japan shot 43 percent. Japan attempted 30 three-pointers, making 10 of them, as Canada was 5-for-19 from beyond the arc. Japan pushed the ball throughout, outscoring Canada 22-12 in fastbreak points, but Canada’s defence helped pressure Japan into 17 turnovers and the Canadians took advantage, scoring 23 points off Japan’s miscues while also holding a 9-0 advantage in second-chance points. 

After the game, Achonwa was asked about the evolution of the team’s roster over the years as she will head to her third Olympic Games with a roster of teammates that will include some first-time Olympians.

“I think this is a great test in preparation,” she said. “Mentally, we treated it like it was an Olympic event. It was an Olympic event for us. I think this gave the players some experience at this level. Taking it going forward, [we are] just trying to help them along the way and give them as many tips as we can.

“Personally, I’m thankful for having been a part of this program since I was 16 because I’ve had great leaders come before me and teach me the ropes,” she continued. “I think where the props goes is to our coaching staff and our support staff and how they’ve evolved.”

While Achonwa gave credit to the coaching and support staff, Thomaidis directed the praise right back to her players.

“I think the team has really evolved over the years,” Thomaidis said. “The athletes, they’ve been fantastic. They have complete buy-in and trust. It’s amazing. They've had to play a number of different styles over their careers and it’s not easy. They’re playing for their pro context and the WNBA and then coming back to us. It really speaks to their basketball IQ. they’re really intelligent and it’s just a pleasure to work with them.”