RIO DE JANEIRO — The boos rattled around Youth Arena every time Canada stepped up to the free-throw line Wednesday night.
And when Senegal cut Canada’s lead to just six points with a couple of minutes to play, Senegal’s vibrating fan section of yellow, green and red roared.
Canada’s women’s basketball team overcame a sluggish performance to beat Senegal 68-58, clinching a spot in the quarter-finals and winning three games for the first time in Olympic history.
The boos? They spoke volumes, the Canadians said, about how far the women’s team has come.
“It’s a good thing, we always were kind of those underdogs,” said Kia Nurse, a 20-year-old from Hamilton. “Well (the veterans) were. They were in that position first, and they told us about that. They have explained to us that now we have targets on our backs in a different way.
“People are not looking past us, people are not happy to play us sometimes, when they see us in their pool play. That’s exciting, that’s a position you want to be in. That’s just what our vets have done for us.”
Nurse scored 14 points, while Tamara Tatham added 13 points and eight rebounds to top the Canadians, who remain tied with the United States at the top of their group with identical 3-0 records.
Canada had never won more than two games at an Olympics. They reached the quarter-finals four years ago in London, but with just two wins. Their best Olympic finish was fourth — also with two wins — in a six-team Olympic tournament in 1984 in Los Angeles.
“That’s huge,” Nurse said. “That’s just a testament to the rise of basketball on the women’s side in Canada and how it’s continued to grow each and every day.”
Senegal’s brief 4-0 lead to start the game was the team’s first in these Olympics, much to the delight of the Senegalese fans. Had the game been judged on cheering, Senegal would have won, hands down. Even a Senegalese reporter proudly had a small Senegal flag sitting next to his laptop.
Captain Kim Gaucher knocked down Canada’s first shot with 6:15 left in the first quarter, and No. 24 Senegal wouldn’t lead again as the ninth-ranked Canadians were up 17-10 to end the first quarter, and took a 33-24 advantage into the halftime break.
Canada led 55-41 to start the fourth, then withstood the Senegalese run that made it a six-point game, pulling away down the stretch.
“That’s not one to write home about for sure,” said Canada’s head coach Lisa Thomaidis. “But Senegal is a tough team to play. We anticipated that coming in, that they would give us some difficulty with their physicality and athleticism so we’re happy to come out with the win.”
The Canadians were coming off a thrilling and emotional 71-67 win over Serbia that saw them claw back from an 18-point deficit. They opened the Olympics with a 90-68 rout of China.
“It’s tremendous. We’re very, very happy to be where we are right now,” Thomaidis said. “To be 3-0 at this point in the tournament we’re ecstatic to know we’ve clinched a spot in the quarter-finals.
“Couldn’t be happier but still lots of things left on the docket that we want to check off our list and next up is the U.S.”
The Americans have scored more than 100 points in each of their first three games, destroying their opponents by a total of 131 points. They’ve been the class of the field for years, building a cavernous gap over everyone else that Thomaidis said she hasn’t seen narrow at all.
“We’ve played them once, they’re the class of the competition, they’re the best team in the world and we’re certainly aware of that,” Thomaidis said. “For us, it’s a chance to measure ourselves against the best again, and every time you get to play against teams that are betting than you, you get a chance to improve.”
Nurse has a connection to the U.S. team in head coach Geno Auriemma, her coach at the University of Connecticut.
“I’m sure he’ll text me (before Friday’s game),” said Nurse, who’s won two NCAA titles with UConn. “He’s texted me after every single game.
“We have normal conversations, so I’m sure he’ll send me a text message or two, and I’ll tell him not to send a trap my way,” she added, laughing. “He knows where I like to go in the trap spots, so I’ll tell him not to send a trap my way.”
The Canadians have to approach the mighty Americans, said Nurse, with the “mentality that you can win the game. There’s no other way to go into it.”
“Most of the time the game is won before you walk into the gym because they have that USA jersey on,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of experience with that, and you learn it’s not about the jersey you’ve got, if you play a good game anybody can win any day.”
Canada wraps up the preliminary against Spain on Sunday.