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Shields proving worthy for Britain

Despite loss to Canada, former UVic coach has host team on rise
Canada's Shona Thorburn celebrates after helping her team beat Great Britain in preliminary-round action Monday in London.

Have coaching experience, will travel.

There was a familiar figure on the bench when Canada defeated Great Britain 73-65 in Olympic women's basketball Monday at the 2012 London Summer Games.

The only thing was that Canadian coaching legend Ken Shields of Victoria wasn't on the Canuck bench, but on the British side as assistant coach for the host nation's team.

"Since we already played Canada twice [a 1-1 preOlympics exhibition series split], it [was] easier to go through it for me the third time," said Shields, from London.

"In the first game, it felt eerily strange to be standing on the other side for the first time in my life while singing the Canadian national anthem," added the mentor, who coached the University of Victoria Vikes to seven consecutive CIS national men's titles in the 1980s and the Canadian national men's team for five years in the 1990s.

"I had been in so many games, when I coached all levels of Canadian national teams, where it was such a proud feeling to be representing my country. However, I have now represented the national teams of five different countries [including as assistant coach of the Australian men's Olympic team at the 2004 Athens Summer Games], so I am used to standing for the countries I represent."

But this was different.

"However, I must admit that playing against Canada in the Olympics [was] not an easy experience," said Shields.

"I happen to be with Great Britain so [did] my best to win. If we [had] won, I would feel joy for GB and sadness for Canada. Canada . . . beat us, [so I] feel sadness for GB and happiness for Canada."

If 11th-ranked Canada is considered an underdog in the Olympics, the odds facing the 49th-ranked host nation - where hoops lags far behind soccer, rugby and cricket in popularity - are daunting. But under the tutelage of Shields and Great Britain head coach Tom Maher, who guided Australia to Olympic silver and bronze medals, progress has been made.

"The experience has been great," said Shields.

"We have taken a [Great Britain] team that had been in the 'B' Division in Europe for their lifetime to where we won our 'A' Division tournament. It was the first time GB had ever been in the 'A' Division and it qualified us for the European championships. We then went to the European championships last year in Poland and advanced out of our pool to the second round."

The Canadians carried a 36-32 lead into halftime after a scrappy, uneven first half, saved in part by Shona Thorburn. The Canadian sharp-shooter hit a three-pointer at the end of the first quarter, and she hit a hard running shot across the key in the second. Thorburn finished with a gamehigh 18 points.

The top four in each sixteam Olympic division advance to the quarter-finals, so the game between Canada (1-1) and Great Britain (0-2) was pivotal.

Another unique Island connection to the host British women's Olympic hoops team was narrowly missed when six-foot-seven Stelly's Secondary graduate Sarah McKay of Victoria, suffering from knee problems, was the last cut from the British team for the 2012 Summer Games. The European pro player was eligible because of family ties to England.

The former Indiana Hoosiers U.S. collegiate NCAA player could have joined another Stelly's Secondary grad, former UVic player Aaron Olson, who represented New Zealand in men's basketball at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

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