It is the most obvious statement in Canadian sport at the moment: Hoops is hot.
The ripples from the Toronto Raptors’s NBA championship season reached from Victoria to St. John’s. But the women’s game had been doing just fine before that, particularly internationally, where Canada reached the quarter-finals of both the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2018 FIBA world championship and is currently ranked No. 5 in the world.
Canada also won the silver medal at the FIBA U-16 world championship this summer behind the U.S., while the Canadian U-19 team won bronze at the 2017 FIBA worlds and was quarter-finalist and placed sixth at the 2019 worlds last week in Bangkok.
There is even a She The North campaign to lure a WNBA team to Toronto.
The next Kia Nurses and Natalie Achonwas are on display this week at the national U-15 and U-17 Canadian championships in CARSA gym and McKinnon Gym on the University of Victoria campus.
“Canada is doing well internationally and those national team players have come through, and were identified, through these national U-15 and U-17 tournaments,” said New Brunswick U-17 head coach Peter Kelly.
Indeed, almost all the players performing this week on the CARSA and McKinnon floorboards will eventually be headed to Canadian university hoops in U Sports or to the NCAA in the U.S. or to college basketball. This is, simply put, the best of the best in Canada at the U-17 and U-15 levels.
“This is not just another summer tournament. This is the nationals,” said B.C. U-17 team head coach Megan Pinske.
Pinske is a Vancouver native who spent the past three seasons as lead assistant coach to Lisa Thomaidis with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies’ powerhouse Canadian West and U Sports program. Thomaidis is also head coach of the Canadian Olympic team.
“Lisa was such a great mentor and I learned so much from her about how to be a good coach and good person,” said Pinske.
The mentorship allowed Pinske to see the big picture of Canada’s rise in women’s hoops.
“[Thomaidis] is one of the best coaches in the world. But this has also been years and years in the making — from past national team coaches such as Allison McNeill — and it took a long time to get here [world top-five]. It is also a tribute to the coaches and programs across the country. Each province is focused on player development from a young age at the grass-roots level.”
Pinske’s B.C. team, meanwhile, took advantage of home-court advantage to defeat Ontario 68-60 on Tuesday at McKinnon Gym as the dynamic duo from Semiahmoo, Deja Lee and Tara Wallack, scored 19 and 17 points.
“Being the home-province team in Victoria is a real treat for us and I thought we responded very well today [after the opening-day 80-55 B.C. loss Monday to Quebec],” said Pinske.
It is truly old-home week at CARSA for B.C. U-15 team head coach Leanne Evans, who was the UVic Vikes’ lead assistant coach for six seasons in Canada West from 2012 to 2018. B.C. opened U-15 play with a 50-45 loss to Saskatchewan on Monday and then were beaten 60-51 by Quebec on Tuesday.
The national tournaments continue all week at CARSA and McKinnon, through to the U-15 championship game Saturday at 3:45 p.m. and the U-17 final at 6 p.m.
The boys’ U-15 and U-17 national championship tournaments are running concurrently this week in Fredericton, N.B.
This is the generation that will be following the trail of current Canadian players who have reached as far as the NBA and WNBA.
“The Raptors generated a lot of interest and Canada got behind them,” said Kelly. “People across the country are taking the sport seriously.”