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It wasn't an offensive masterpiece by any means, but the Canadian senior women's basketball team picked up a confidence-boosting victory over China on Friday as they gear up for Olympic qualifying.
Team Canada won the rubber match of the Jack Donohue International Classic, edging China 45-37 in a gritty, physical battle at the University of the Fraser Valley.
Allison McNeill's Canadian squad had won the opener of the exhibition series 78-66 at the Langley Events Centre on Wednesday, and China won the second game 67-51 at the Richmond Olympic Oval on Thursday.
The fact the two teams were playing each other for a third time in three days manifested itself in a pair of ways on Friday. Both squads struggled offensively, particularly in the first half – the product of fatigue and familiarity. The game also had a relentlessly rugged feel to it.
"It gets a tiny bit chippy because it's like guarding your best friend for three days," McNeill, the Canadian head coach, said afterward. "You kind of know them inside and out."
Testing themselves against a physical foe figures to serve Canada in good stead, though, as they prepare for the FIBA Olympic Qualification Tournament, which opens June 25 in Ankara, Turkey. The top five teams from that 12-team competition advance to the London Olympics.
"It'll be grind-it-out affairs there, for sure, it'll be physical," McNeill noted. "You're going to clutch and grab and do whatever you can to get to the Olympics."
Generating offence was a grind for both teams in the early going – Canada led 11-10 after the first quarter, and 19-16 after the second. The Canadians made just 37.5 per cent of their attempts from the floor in the half, while China shot 32.0 per cent.
Canada hit its stride after the break, opening the third quarter on a 10-2 run, with Kim Smith – a product of Heritage Park Secondary in Mission – swishing a key three-pointer in that spurt.
The Canucks stretched the lead to as many as 14 points in the third, but China battled back to within eight early in the fourth. But a put-back by Smith and a trey from point guard Teresa Gabriele – another Heritage Park grad – helped Canada regain control.
Smith picked up player of the game honours after leading Canada with 12 points and eight rebounds. Alisha Tatham was the only other double-figure scorer with 10 points, while Xiaoli Chen led China with eight points.
Wei Wei, China's towering 6'9" centre, hauled in seven rebounds, but Canada limited her to two points on 1-for-5 shooting.
GABRIELE IS CANADA'S 'GOLD STANDARD'
For Gabriele, this Olympic campaign is particularly meaningful because it will be her last. The 33-year-old veteran is the lone holdover from the last time Canada qualified for the Olympics, back in 2000.
While many of her teammates play professionally overseas, the 5'5" point guard works out on her own locally. She works for her family's bread business, stocking shelves at Costco and Walmart in the early mornings before devoting the rest of her day to training.
Gabriele plans to retire from the national team this year – ideally after a trip to London – and focus on a new career as a certified professional trainer.
"There would be nothing better than to be able to go out with an Olympic experience," said Gabriele, who scored five points and added three assists in a game-high 34 minutes on Friday. "I think that would be an amazing way to end my career."
McNeill joked that she'll try to talk Gabriele into staying on with the national team, but she doesn't think it'll work.
"She's meant an awful lot to this program over a great many years, and she is really the gold standard for commitment to the national program in this country," McNeill said. "In Canada, when you finish university, you're 22 and you're done. At the last World Championships, we were the only country there without a domestic pro league for women.
"So Teresa's had to do it on her own, where a lot of players stop playing. But I think she's inspired others to stay with it longer. She's married, she's going to have a family, but you can do both.
"I think she's inspired a whole generation of young girls. Not to mention that she's a fantabulous player – still."
Canada's Alisha Tatham drives to the hoop against a Chinese opponent on Friday evening at UFV. (John Morrow photo)