London • Good heavens, hasn’t Kim Smith suffered enough?
The all-time leading women’s basketball scorer at the University of Utah had to work and wait for 11 long years before finally getting her shot at the Olympics with her native Canada. Then, she and her teammates had to endure a stomach-churning win-or-go-back-to-Toronto qualifying game to ensure the trip.
How the Utes fared
Player Min FG Pts Reb Ast
Kim Smith 28 6-9 20 0 2
Shona Thorburn 28 1-5 7 2 6
Michelle Plouffe DNP
Smith erupts with a brilliant game in her Olympic debut in London, scoring 20 points against the second-ranked team in the world — including five 3-pointers — only to watch her team’s defense fall apart in the final minutes of a 58-53 loss to Russia at the Basketball Arena that spoiled an otherwise wondrous performance.
"We had it in our hands," Smith said. "We’re just upset and disappointed with ourselves, because we feel like we sort of let it slip away with our defense, which is a staple. It’s how we win games."
Not this time.
The Canadians blew a 10-point lead in the final five minutes, allowing Russia’s Becky Hammon — you remember her, the American from South Dakota who switched to Russia when she wasn’t invited to the U.S. training camp four years ago? — to race past them for eight straight points in the final three minutes and pull away.
"You almost want to say that they’re lucky shots," guard Shona Thorburn said, "but she makes them all the time."
Thorburn is another of the three current or former Utes playing for Canada, having joined with Smith in leading them to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2006. Forward Michelle Plouffe is the other, but she did not play against the Russians, who missed their first 13 3-point attempts.
Thorburn scored seven points and dished out six assists, but could not contain Hammon at the end.
Still, the Canadians are hopeful.
They’re the first basketball team to represent their country in the Olympics since the 2000 Sydney Games, and despite being considered among the outsiders — they were the last team in the field to qualify —they have plans to make a splash.
"We came here to upset some people," longtime national team coach Alison McNeill said. "It didn’t happen today, but it might happen."
Both former Utah coach Elaine Elliott and current coach Anthony Levrets were expecting to attend games in London, and the Canadians have four more in pool play, in which they must finish fourth among six teams to reach the knockout stages.
Next up is lowly Great Britain on Monday, and Smith figures her team can easily bounce back from the loss, considering how quickly it bounced back from a loss in the quarterfinals of the last-chance qualifying tournament in Turkey recently to beat Argentina and Japan in must-win situations and clinch their historic Olympic berth.
"The way we got here was through heartache," Thorburn said, "so we’ve proven that we can do that against good teams at the world level. Like always, it feels like we’re going to take the harder route."
And even if it doesn’t get any better than this … well, it doesn’t really get any better than this.
Off the court, the experience already has been an incredible one for the Canadian Utes, who marched in the Opening Ceremony on Friday night — "pretty amazing," Smith said — and promptly turned around and headed back to their hotel to rest up for the Russians.
"It’s like any other tournament, but then you look around and go, ‘This isn’t just any other tournament,’ " Thorburn said, with a laugh. "You see Venus Williams walk into the same place that you’re eating. When in the world does that ever happen to you?"
Only at the Olympics, a long time coming for these Canadians.
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