By Greg Mercer
The Hamilton Spectator (Aug 11, 2016)
RIO DE JANEIRO — Canada's scrappy basketball women as lovable underdogs? Tell that to the crowd at the Youth Arena in Rio de Janeiro.
They rained down boos on the Canadians as they rolled to their third straight victory at the 2016 Summer Olympics, beating Senegal 68-58 to remain undefeated — the first time a Canuck women's team has ever started a Games winning three in a row.
It wasn't a smooth victory — some sloppy play let Senegal claw their way back to within seven points in the dying minutes — but the players will take it.
The Canadians, who have clinched a spot in the quarter-finals, have somehow morphed into villains in the eyes of crowds in Rio. Toward the end of the first half, with Canada leading 33-24, the women were booed loudly every time they took the ball down the court.
Every missed shot was cheered heartily by the fans, who often drowned out the Canadian cheering section in the stands. The women said afterward the boos are a response to their recent success in the international game.
"We always used to be those underdogs. But now we have targets on our back," said point guard Kia Nurse of Hamilton, who led the Canadians again with 14 points.
"People aren't excited to see us, people are not happy to play us sometimes, and aren't looking past us in their pool play. And that's exciting. That's a good position to be in."
Only 20 years old, Nurse, who put up 25 points in Monday's win over Serbia, has been a leader for the Canadians in Rio. She said she's settling down on the court, not panicking, and the game is beginning "to act a little bit slower in my head."
Senegal was a big and physically imposing team, prompting Canada's head coach Lisa Thomaidis to send out a bigger lineup to push back on defence. Guelph's Natalie Achonwa, a six-foot-three power forward, was a big presence on the court, finishing with seven points.
Brampton's Tamara Tatham, who had with 13 points and 10 rebounds, said the women were surprised, but not bothered, by the boos.
"It's not something we expected. No one expects to come out there and get booed when we have the ball," she said. "Hopefully we can start to get the fans to have our backs. Maybe we're not underdogs anymore. But it's about time people start to take us seriously."
The real challenge is about to begin for the Canadians, who face the gold medal favourites U.S. on Friday, and a tough Spanish team Sunday.
"They're (the U.S.) the best team in the world, and we're aware of that. For us, it's a chance to measure ourselves against the best again," she said. "But to be 3-0 at this point in the tournament, we're ecstatic."
Nurse, who plays college basketball with Connecticut in the NCAA, said the powerhouse U.S. team has an intimidation factor that dismantles opponents before they even tip off. Canada's challenge is to block that out.
"Most of the time, the game is won before they even walk into the gym, because they have that USA jersey on. I've had a lot of experience with that," she said.
"You learn it's not about the jersey, you go out there and play a good game and anybody can win on any day."
by Greg Mercergmercer@therecord.com
Twitter: @MercerRecordhttp://www.thespec.com/sports-story/680406 ...