Victoria the winner as basketball events roll in

It has been a while, but Victoria is suddenly hoops heaven again.

A series of events has put hall-of-famer and two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash’s hometown back in the basketball news.

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The biggest story is that Canada’s NBA-laden national men’s team will attempt to springboard to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games in the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament next June at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.

Standing in the way in that group will be Greece, led by the reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, known as the “Greek Freak.”

The focus Saturday night, however, was on Ken and Kathy Shields Court in CARSA Gym at the University of Victoria as two NCAA top-10 women’s teams met in the final of the Greater Victoria Invitational presented by Langford.

The No. 3-ranked Stanford Cardinal (7-0) defeated the No. 10 Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-0) 67-62 before a near-capacity crowd in a battle of legitimate contenders to be in the NCAA Final Four in April at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.

Both teams brought interesting storylines to the UVic campus Saturday.

Stanford is coached by Tara VanDerveer, the second-winningest coach in NCAA women’s hoops history, who coached the U.S. to the Olympic gold medal at Atlanta in 1996.

A senior guard for the Cardinal is Anna Wilson, sister of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Stanford also has former Canada Under-18 and U-19 national team selection Mikaela Brewer of Barrie, Ont., and Alyssa Jerome of Toronto, who represented Canada at the 2019 Lima Pan Am Games and is on the long list for the Tokyo Olympics.

Brewer and Jerome, meanwhile, point to Canada’s emergence in women’s basketball, with the likes of former NCAA stars Kia Nurse and Natalie Achonwa leading world No. 4 Canada into next year’s FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament in Belgium for Tokyo 2020.

Mississippi State sports made headlines this past week for its whiplash-inducing football victory over rival Ole Miss because of a penalty to Ole Miss following a bizarre touchdown celebration at the death which resulted in a missed convert. The Mississippi State basketball players had gathered in their Victoria hotel room to watch the game via streaming.

Not that they aren’t a worthy story in themselves. The Bulldogs women cagers have become an annual power, under the mentorship of head coach Vic Schaefer, with four NCAA Sweet 16, three Elite Eight, two Final Four and two championship game appearances since 2012.

The Greater Victoria Invitational presented by Langford is part of a trend in NCAA women’s and men’s basketball as teams travel to tournaments in different countries and exotic locations during the U.S. Thanksgiving weekend.

Schaefer noted Mississippi State has been to Thanksgiving tournaments the past few years in the Bahamas, Virgin Islands and Hawaii.

The eight-team Greater Victoria International was organized by bdG Sports of Lexington, Kentucky.

It is one of four men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments the company organized this weekend, along with others in Las Vegas, Fort Myers, Florida, and the Bahamas. Other companies are organizing several other NCAA tournaments, including the most famous in Maui.

It’s a lucrative annual U.S. Thanksgiving trade for tourism organizations from Canada to Mexico to the Caribbean to hook into. And it is part of a larger strategy for Tourism Victoria.

“We have invested deliberately in sport-hosting,” Paul Nursey, president and CEO of Tourism Victoria and Destination Greater Victoria, said on the eve of the Victoria Invitational.

“[Sport-hosting] has become a key anchor and part of our core business.”

The players on the eight teams here in the NCAA Invitational, and their fans who followed, almost universally gave Victoria glowing reviews.

Organizing sporting events is a bit of an art form, as well as business. The rewards in return are both monetary and subjective.

“One of the players told us they haven’t met a Canadian in Victoria they don’t like,” said Heather Crisp, who, with husband Sandy Crisp, were the local liaisons for the Stanford and Bowling Green teams.

And future such events here?

“We hope to return. We’ll see what the possibilities are for the future,” said Jon Albaugh of bdG Sports.

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