SYDNEY, Australia - Three short weeks after gathering for training camp, and with no official games together with the full roster, Canada's women's basketball got off to a shaky start against familiar foe Serbia in its World Cup opener.
But new coach Victor Lapena said he's learned a key trait about his players in their brief time together.
"We realized some things, but especially one: the team's belief in themselves," Lapena said. "And this is the most important for me."
Kayla Alexander scored 13 points and Kia Nurse finished with nine in her first game in almost a year, and Canada opened the FIBA World Cup with a 67-60 victory over Serbia on Thursday.
"During many minutes today when Serbia pressed, when Serbia did good jobs to come back into the game, the team was ready to make good decisions in that moment," Lapena said. "But I think if we played two or three more games, maybe even the team would be better right now. It's like we are in pre-season."
Nirra Fields finished with 12 points, while Natalie Achonwa, a forward for the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx, had 10 points and eight rebounds for the fourth-ranked Canadians.
Yvonne Anderson led No. 10 Serbia with 18 points.
The game was a rematch of Canada's opener of the Tokyo Olympics. The Canadians stumbled out of the gate against the Serbs, a 72-68 loss that all but determined their fate in Tokyo.
Achonwa said earlier this week that the team played tight in Tokyo under weighty expectations of a medal.
That didn't happen on Thursday.
"Congratulations to my players now for the attitude, for the trust," Lapena said. "Serbia was working really hard, they are very good team and we were able to make good decisions, to share the ball and to play with calm and I think it was very important for the final result."
Nurse's triumphant return was a big positive 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 game almost a year ago, scoring Canada's first points of the tournament and playing 19 minutes.
Lapena praised the play of Alexander, the team's oldest player at 31 and a WNBA veteran.
"Kayla Alexander … one of the most important Canadian players in our history," the coach said. "I'm super happy because she's one of our leaders. Maybe she doesn't talk too much, (but) her voice, she speaks with her teammates, everybody is, 'Kayla talked about it, let's do it.'"
Canada Basketball made some significant changes following the team's gut-wrenching preliminary-round exit at the Olympics; hiring Lapena, a Spaniard and veteran of that national program, 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 on Thursday and trailed by five points early on. But they found their groove late in the first quarter, and went into the second down just 16-15. Canada took the lead in the second quarter and never trailed again.
"I thought we did a good job coming in and we're finishing the game together," guard Shay Colley said. "Our hard work … 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."
The Canadians went up by five when Bridget Carleton drilled a three-pointer off a cross-court pass from Laeticia Amihere midway through the second quarter. 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 advantage 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 sliced the difference to seven with just under a minute to play, but it was already all but game over.
"When you play with the maximum energy that you have, good things happen," Lapena said. "We are not perfect, but we are learning this process."
Canada has two World Cup bronze medals, from 1979 and '86. The Canadians were quarterfinalists 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 medallists, hosts and No. 3-ranked Australia, and then close group play against Mali.
The top four from each group advance to the quarterfinals on Sept. 29. The semifinals are Sept. 30, and the medal games are Oct. 1.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2022.