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Canadian women’s basketball team defeat Serbia in World Cup opener

Kayla Alexander scored 13 points and Kia Nurse finished with nine in her first match in almost a year, and Canada’s women’s basketball team opened the FIBA World Cup with a 67-60 victory over Serbia on Thursday.

Nirra Fields finished with 12 points, while Natalie Achonwa had 10 points and eight rebounds for the fourth-ranked Canadians.

Yvonne Anderson led No. 10 Serbia with 18 points.

“Kayla Alexander, Euroleague level, many years played in Canada, 32 years old, one of the most important Canadian players in our history,” Team Canada head coach Víctor LaPeña said. “I’m super happy because she’s one of our leaders. Maybe she doesn’t talk too much, [with] her voice, [but] she speaks with her teammates, and everybody is, ‘Kayla talked about it, let’s do it.'”

Nurse’s night was a bright spot for the Canadians.

The Phoenix Mercury guard showed little rust in her first game since tearing her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in a WNBA playoff match almost a year ago, scoring Canada’s first points of the tournament and playing 19 minutes.

The game was a rematch of Canada’s opening game of the Tokyo Olympics. They stumbled out of the gate against the Serbs, a 72-68 loss that all but determined their fate in Tokyo.

“I thought we did a good job coming in and finishing the game together,” Shay Colley said. “You know, all our hard work over the past month and a half together just really showed off and we knew Serbia was going to come out very hard and aggressive, so just sticking together towards the end with poise and trusting in each other.”

Achonwa stated earlier this week that the team played tight in Tokyo under weighty expectations of a medal.

Canada Basketball made some significant changes after the Olympics, hiring Spaniard Lapena as head coach, and adding Noelle Quinn, head coach of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, as an assistant.

Canada got off to a shaky start and trailed by five points early on. But they found their groove late in the first quarter heading into the second down 16-15.

The Canadians went up by five when Bridget Carleton drilled a three-pointer off a crosscourt pass from Laeticia Amihere midway through the second. Canada continued to build on its lead, and Alexander’s free throw to end the quarter sent the Canadians into the halftime break with a 38-28 lead.

Serbia sliced the difference to eight points in the third, but Achonwa’s putback with four seconds left gave Canada a 54-41 lead with one quarter to play.

Colley’s jump shot with 6:45 to play put the Canadians up by 15 points, but Serbia battled back to within eight two minutes later. Nirra Fields went coast to coast to score after a steal, giving Canada 11 points of breathing room with 2:22 to play. The Serbs cut the difference to seven with just under a minute to play, but it was already all but game over.

“I’m super happy,” LaPeña said of his team’s effort defensively. “They don’t give up. They don’t rest on the court. When they rest on the court, it’s because they don’t realize it. As a coach, what more can I ask them. They are working all the time and they trust in my job, in our [coaching staff]. When you play with your best, when you play with the maximum possibilities that you have, good things happen. We are not perfect but we are learning this process.”

Canada has two World Cup bronze medals, from 1979 and ’86. The Canadians were quarter-finalists in both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

They’ve been drawn into a tough Pool B in the 12-team World Cup. Next up is No. 6 France on Friday. Canada also faces Japan, the reigning Olympic silver medalists, hosts and No. 3-ranked Australia, and then close group play against Mali.

The top four from each group advance to the quarter-finals on Sept. 29. The semifinals are Sept. 30, and the medal games are Oct. 1.

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