Women's basketball: For Ute hoop stars, long Olympic wait finally over
Eleven years, Kim Smith has waited.
Even more, really, if you consider that she has been dreaming about playing in the Olympics since she was a little girl, and not just since she first joined the Canadian women's basketball team on a full-time basis when she was a sophomore at the University of Utah, on her way to a spectacular college and pro career.
So when she finally scored the basket that sealed a dramatic victory earlier this month that delivered the Canadian team including two of her fellow Utes, Shona Thorburn and Michelle Plouffe to the upcoming London Olympics, she almost didn't know how to react.
"It's pretty hard to summarize it all right now," she said in a phone interview from Toronto. "It feels like it's all still sinking in."
Might take a minute, too.
Her nation might have hosted the 2010 Vancouver Games, but it has not sent a basketball team women's or men's Â to the Olympics since the 2000 Sydney Games in Australia.
But all of that has changed, thanks in part to a trio of Utes who helped the Canadians survive a last-chance qualifying tournament in Ankara, Turkey, and claim the very last spot left in the women's field in London â¦ on Canada Day, no less.
"Honestly, all of us were so calm when we woke up" that day, Thorburn said. "It's like we all knew the stars were aligning and it was our day."
Speaking of stars â¦ it's hard to imagine the Utes without Smith, Thorburn and Plouffe.
While Smith and Thorburn were teammates on the Utah team that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament in 2006 both then became first-round draft picks in the WNBA Plouffe is the current standout for the Utes, who finished 16-16 last season in their first year in the powerful Pac-12 Conference.
All three are part of an ongoing recruiting pipeline started by legendary former coach Elaine Elliott, who saw the talent up north in players who needed playing experience in the United States.
"They're special kids, and I'm so proud of them," said Elliott, who fielded a call from the players in Turkey right after their crucial victory and is trying to get to London to see them play. "It's exciting for them, but it's really exciting for me, too."
The partnership has paid off handsomely for both the Utes and the Canadian national team, in part, current coach Anthony Levrets said, because both teams play a similar system with motion-style offenses and man-to-man defense.
Which is not to say it paid off quickly.
When Smith joined the national team not long after it made its second straight Olympic appearance in Sydney, she imagined she might one day participate in four Olympics.
But reality got in the way.
The Canadians failed first to qualify for the 2004 Athens Games, with Smith and Thorburn on the roster, then came up short again before the 2008 Beijing Games, this time with only Smith there.
All along, both players were playing professionally in the WNBA and overseas, growing older and beginning to wonder whether they'd ever really get the chance to stop on their sport's biggest stage. Smith was so concerned that she put her pro career on hold for the past year in order to train with the national team.
"I've done so many things, but this is the one thing that, as a child, I dreamed about," she said. "It never was the WNBA for me, never anything but the Olympics.
"Obviously, I wouldn't have changed as a person, but it would have been really disappointing to look back on my basketball career and not be able to say I was an Olympian," she added. "It's pretty amazing to say that now, and I feel so incredible to be able to share it with my teammates, too."
The Canadians entered the tournament in Turkey needing to finish fifth or better to earn a spot in London.
In other words, winning a quarterfinal game would clinch it.
But they lost to Croatia 59-56 in the quarters, with Smith shooting just 2-of-13. In fact, she and Thorburn to that point had combined to shoot just 10-for-44 from the field Plouffe did not play much and the Canadians suddenly needed to win two games in the loser's bracket to grab fifth place.
Amazingly, they did it, beating Argentina 58-41 before holding off Japan 71-63 the next day.
In that game, Thorburn hit the 3-pointer that gave Canada a 15-point lead, and Smith hit the last one with 12 seconds left that finally smothered a Japanese comeback that had cut the lead to three points in the final minutes.
"It felt like we had the game in control the whole time," Smith said. "I know they cut it to three, and I think everybody's parents were freaking out, but we weren't. We just felt like it was in the cards and we were going to win. It was one of the most amazing moments of my basketball career."
For now, anyway.
It's bound to drop down a notch once the Canadian Utes walk through the Opening Ceremony in London, and start playing games July 28 in pursuit of their first medal ever. They will meet Australia, Brazil, Great Britain, France and Russia in the group stage, needing to finish in the top four to reach the quarterfinals.
"We'll have wide eyes the whole two weeks we'll be there," Thorburn said.
With good reason.
This is historic stuff for Team Canada, and a cherished achievement for Smith, Thorburn and Plouffe. Heck, it might also be the key to the Utes winning the Pac-12 Championship one of these days, considering that Elliott said the trio's success has helped keep alive the Canadian pipeline to the Huntsman Center.
"One of the greatest things about qualifying is how much the sport of basketball is about to grow in our country, because we're finally on the world stage," Smith said. "We've been to two world championships in a row, but people watch the Olympics. â¦ We're going to be on TV, and people are going to see us, and that's going to get more kids playing basketball, and hopefully a few more Canadians down in Utah. That would be great."
Forward | No. 8
Hometown • Mission, BC
• All-time leading scorer and third-leading rebounder during a four-year career with the Utes from 2002-06.
• No. 13 pick in the 2006 WNBA Draft, played three years in Sacramento before going overseas to Belgium and Spain.
Guard | No. 6
Hometown • Hamilton, ON
• All-time assists leader and seventh-leading scorer for the Utes, during a four-year career with the Utes from 2002-06.
• No. 7 pick in the 2006 WNBA Draft, played one season in Minnesota before heading overseas to spend past five years in Spain.
Forward | No. 15
Hometown • Edmonton, AB
• Already the eighth-leading shot blocker in Utes history, having played every game in her two seasons so far.
• Led the Utes in scoring last season, going 16-16 in their first season in the Pac-12 Conference.
Three current or former Utes will play for Canada at the London Olympics:
July 28 •Â Russia, 4:15 a.m.
July 30 •Â Great Britain, 1 p.m.
August 1 •Â France, 2 a.m.
August 3 •Â Brazil, 7:30 a.m.
August 5 •Â Australia, 7:30 a.m.
All Times MDT