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HomeSportsNBAPivotal summer for Canada's women's basketball team set for tipoff in Victoria

Pivotal summer for Canada’s women’s basketball team set for tipoff in Victoria

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It’s a rare home game for Canada’s senior women’s national basketball team.

The team tips off an important summer on Friday with a friendly against Japan in Victoria — its first time playing in Canada since 2019, and its first game in the provincial capital in over 20 years.

Vancouver’s Aislinn Konig, one of two B.C. natives on the training camp roster along with Taya Hanson of Kelowna, said it’s been seven years since she played in her home province.

“It’s an honour,” Konig told CBC Sports. “It’s fantastic to be able to represent such an amazing basketball community, so we’re just hoping to put on a good show for everybody and hopefully, maybe inspire the next Aislinn Konig, Taya Hanson that comes along and walks in our shoes after we are done.”

The game will serve as a warmup ahead of the FIBA AmeriCup in early July, where the top team outside of the World Cup champion U.S. will earn a spot in the Olympic qualifying tournament for Paris 2024. The next three best teams must advance through pre-qualifying tournaments.

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The hosts, led by Lauren Jackson’s 30 points, defeated Canada 95-65 to clinch 3rd place at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup.

Canada, ranked fifth worldwide, was drawn into a group with Mexico (No. 45), Puerto Rico (No. 10), Colombia (No. 32) and the Dominican Republic (No. 35).

The exhibition against ninth-ranked Japan, the reigning Olympic silver medallists, should provide a solid test for Canada, which is carrying some momentum of its own after a fourth-place finish at the World Cup last fall — its best result since 1986.

“Every single summer seems like it’s the most important summer ever. It’s kind of just how we function as the national team. There’s not quite any time where we can take a step back,” said Konig, who was a member of the World Cup squad. 

New faces replace WNBA stars

In Victoria, Canada will be without key WNBA players Kia Nurse, Bridget Carleton and Laeticia Amihere – plus Natalie Achonwa, who recently gave birth.

The roster instead mixes some veterans – like two-time Olympians Kayla Alexander and Nirra Fields – with budding stars like Cassandre Prosper, who just completed her first semester at Notre Dame, and Toby Fournier, who recently committed to Duke.

Fournier, 17, told CBC Sports she was excited about the chance to play alongside the players she’s watched since picking up basketball just five years ago.

“Being able to be in my home country and also represent Canada and play against such an amazing team like Japan, it means a lot,” Fournier said.

Konig, 25, said it’s “bittersweet” to be without the WNBA players.

“It’s also a great opportunity to test the team in a different way, to develop the team differently than we would with those key players here to make sure that there are no weak links,” she said.

Friday’s game will take place at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre, the same venue where the men’s team played its last-chance qualifier ahead of the 2021 Olympics and a World Cup qualifier last year.

The team will play on the Golden State Warriors court on which the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 title — the hardwood purchased by event organizer Friends of Victoria Basketball in 2021.

A basketball court is shown with a logo that reads 'The Town.'
The Toronto Raptors title-clinching court is shown above reassembled at the Ian Stewart Complex in Victoria. (Submitted by Nick Blasko)

Konig said she’ll have countless family and friends in attendance, including her parents who are making the trip from their home in Toronto.

“it’s exciting for me to be able to bring a little bit of excitement back to this community and show them that despite the fact that maybe they don’t have as much representation as, say, Ontario on the national team, that they’re still a really big part of the community and the network that makes Canada Basketball so great,” Konig said.

However, the Konigs’s excitement may not be representative of the wider Victoria community.

Low ticket sales

Nick Blasko, Friends of Victoria Basketball COO, told CBC Sports that fewer than 1,500 tickets were sold as of Tuesday afternoon. The arena holds a capacity of 7,400 people.

Blasko noted that it’s a drop interest from the men’s games they’ve organized — something the group is having a hard time squaring with the recent sellout of Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena for a WNBA exhibition game featuring just one Canadian.

“The reality is that it’s not trickling down here on the ground level in some of these communities,” Blasko said. “It’s important to us that people support this and we want to show them that it’s an exciting game, that they’ll have a great experience and they will literally see the next generation of great players.”

It’s even notable that the team is getting to play at home at all, especially considering their soccer counterparts’ light schedule ahead of their World Cup in August.

Blasko said the lack of ticket sales underline the work that still must be done at the grassroots level to make men’s and women’s sports equitable.

“It’s not work that just has to be done in major cities or major markets. It’s got to happen all over the country and all over the continent and everywhere for that matter, whether it’s a tiny community night league game or our senior women’s team,” he said.

Blasko added that he now just wants the arena to fill up. Tickets are available online beginning at a cost of $32.50.

“At this point, having someone in a seat is more important than whatever money they’re going to spend on the ticket to us,” he said. “To be honest, not something I would normally say, but I feel differently about this game.”

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