London • It would have been a great story.
Led by two former University of Utah stars, the plucky little Canadian women’s basketball team — last one into the tournament, and just barely — shocks the powerful United States. Ends a 38-game winning streak. Vaults stunningly into gold-medal contention, never mind hearts and minds all across their country …
Alas, up is not down at the London Olympics.
Black is not white.
And however good it would have felt after the disappointment of their women’s soccer game the night before, the Canadians were never going to somehow turn day into night and dismantle the unrelenting basketball machine that is the United States in the quarterfinals on Tuesday.
“I can’t see anyone touching them,” Canadian coach Allison McNeill said.
So it was.
Right from the start of what became a 91-48 loss that knocked them out of the tournament, the Canadians could get nothing going against the suffocating defense of a team that has not lost in the Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games.
They got shot-clocked three times in the first quarter alone, made just 22 percent in the first half — 30 for the game — and committed a dozen of their 26 turnovers. They were beaten down the floor, swatted out of the post, and smothered by backcourt traps.
In short, it was a pretty miserable way to end such a remarkable achievement, having become the first Canadian basketball team to reach the Olympics since the 2000 Sydney Games.
“I’m proud of the way we’ve grown the game in our country,” forward Kim Smith said, tears welling in her eyes. “The amount of emails and messages that we’ve received from young girls back home who were watching and supporting us, and what it does to watch a team in the Olympics, I mean, it’s huge. … It’s one more dream that the young kids can have.”
Smith is the all-time leading scorer at the University of Utah, who chased her Olympic dream for 11 years and helped lead the Canadians through a nerve-wracking qualification tournament in which they twice survived must-win games to reach London.
Former college teammate Shona Thorburn played a key role, too, while current Ute Michelle Plouffe enjoyed her longest stint of the tournament in an emotional finale against the Americans that marked the end of a long journey for several Canadian veterans — most notably guard Teresa Gabriele.
“I think we proved that we are legitimate,” Thorburn said. “It wasn’t a fluke that we made it here.”
Didn’t look like it, the last game notwithstanding.
The Canadians stayed close in every other game they played — “they’ve been in it right to the end in every match,” U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said — while the Americans have blown out all of their opponents, winning by an average of nearly 38 points per game.
Simply reaching the medal round was an accomplishment, all things considered.
“We peaked in this tournament,” Thorburn said.
Certainly, Thorburn did, playing what McNeill called her best five games in a Canada uniform. Smith averaged 13.8 points for the tournament, and Plouffe enjoyed some experience that’s sure to help her grow, perhaps into one of the players who will anchor the national team in the future.
“We’re going to leave with our heads held high, for what we’ve accomplished,” Plouffe said. “Just us getting here has changed the game for Canada basketball.”
Still, it wasn’t easy to say goodbye. There were tears and hugs as the game came to an end, and soft smiles during postgame interviews at the memories the players had forged together. The 30-year-old Thorburn said she feels great and hopes to return for another shot in four years, while Plouffe is just 19 and appears to have a bright future in the program.
And Smith, who’s 28 and has battled injuries since leaving the Utes?
“We’ll see,” she said, forcing a smile. “We’ll see.”
• The United States extends its Olympic winning streak to 39 games with a 91-48 victory over Canada.
• The U.S. will face Australia in the semifinals, after having beaten the Aussies in the last three gold-medal games.