Throughout the 2023 FIBA World Cup, numerous historic firsts have unfolded, but none as monumental as Canada’s journey to the semi-finals.
The last time the senior men’s national team played a FIBA World Cup game in Manila, Philippines, they squandered the opportunity to play for a medal and reach the podium.
Now, forty-five years later, under the watchful eyes of a growing nation and a new generation, the team’s exceptional performance has captured the hearts of fans nationwide and beyond, leaving little doubt about their intentions to finally deliver a medal to a country longing for international success while achieving their best-ever finish in the 32-team event.
In a fiercely contested and back-and-forth first half, characterized by 18 ties, six lead changes, and a remarkable display of combined three-point shooting (16-of-31) that resulted in a 50-50 tie, Canada left little room for doubt regarding their growing basketball prowess.
They opened the second half with renewed focus on defence, leading to multiple transition opportunities. An impressive 11-2 run allowed them to assert complete control over the game, culminating in a resounding 100-89 victory, marking their historic first-ever win over Slovenia after four failed previous attempts.
In 1978, Canada achieved a now-surpassed best finish, securing sixth place at the FIBA World Championships. Led by then 18-year-old Leo Rautins, the Canadian team had a opportunity to advance to the bronze medal game and potentially reach the podium.
However, a scorching Italian squad, spearheaded by Dino Meneghin (with 23 points) and Pierluigi Marzorati (with 20 points), outscored Canada 54-36 in the second half, denying Canada the opportunity advance to the bronze medal game with a convincing 100-83 win.
Sixteen years later, on home soil, and now under the leadership of 20-year-old Steve Nash, Canada made it to the quarter-finals with a 2-1 preliminary group record.
Needing two wins in the second round to advance to the semi-finals, Canada found themselves trailing Greece at half-time and with a chance to take the lead late in the game. Unfortunately, they couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity and suffered a closely contested 74-71 loss at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.
Prior to this encounter, Canada and Slovenia had only crossed paths once in an official FIBA game. That solitary meeting took place in 2008, during the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Athens, Greece, where Slovenia emerged victorious with an 86-70 scoreline.
Additionally, there were three more friendly games between the two teams, all of which ended in Slovenia’s favour, with scores of 87-72 in 2006, 86-71 in 2010, and 92-80 in 2014.
Leading the charge was the sensational Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, whose MVP-caliber performance included 31 points on just 12 shots, an impressive eight field goals, and 14-of-16 from the foul line. Gilgeous-Alexander also contributed ten rebounds, four assists and two steals in 36 minutes on the court.
His remarkable feat made him the first Canadian player to score 30 or more points in back-to-back FIBA World Cup games. Through six games, Gilgeous-Alexander has scored 150 points and with two guaranteed games remaining, he is on pace to potentially break the record for most total points scored by a Canadian in a single World Cup.
To put it in perspective, Leo Rautins recorded a total of 197 points across ten games at the 1978 World Championships.
Reflecting on the win over Slovenia, Gilgeous-Alexander commented, “I think we played harder in the second half, got more stops for sure. In the first half, they were getting whatever they wanted. We pride ourselves on defence, and that can’t happen moving forward.”
Expressing his determination, Gilgeous-Alexander added, “It feels good. The job is not finished. We didn’t come here just to reach the semi-finals; we want to win gold. So, the job is not finished; it feels good, but we are not satisfied.”
Sharing the limelight was RJ Barrett, whose third-quarter surge accounted for 13 of his 24 points, complemented by nine rebounds and a steal. Additionally, Nickeil Alexander-Walker contributed 14 points, three rebounds and two steals to bolster the team’s performance.
Barrett shared his thoughts on reaching the semi-finals, stating, “It means a lot. I think this is the furthest we have been in program history in this tournament, so this is a special moment, and we are just trying to keep it going.”
Unfortunately, Dillon Brooks, who made significant contributions with 14 points, three rebounds, three assists, was disqualified from the game due to a second technical foul.
Jordi Fernandez, who has achieved an impressive 8-3 record as the head coach of the Canadian national team, expressed his new-found maple leaf pride and commended Brooks on his stellar defensive play, saying, “First of all, congratulations to these guys. They just made history. Congrats to our guys, congrats to the country, and congrats to Canada Basketball.”
Fernandez continued, addressing Brooks’s ejection, “He has to be better; we need him on the court. He cannot get disqualified. We have to have better composure as a team. After that, I think he’s the best defender, along with Lu Dort, the best perimeter defender in this competition. I think today, it was a defensive clinic, leading with his chest, showing his hands, pressuring full court, and if you don’t think that way, then you don’t like basketball.”
On the Slovenian side, Luka Dončić showcased his scoring prowess with 26 points, five assists, and four rebounds on 8-of-20 shooting. Klemen Prepelič had a hot hand with 22 points and five rebounds on 6-of-13 shooting.
Frustrated with the physicality and the lack of calls, Dončić was also ejected after picking up his second technical foul with 6:40 to play in the fourth quarter.
Dončić acknowledged Canada’s performance, stating, “Congratulations to Canada; they played great. It was a very physical game, and they have one of the best players in the world (Shai). It was really tough to guard him. I’m proud of my team; everybody gave 100% out there, so we should go back to the hotel with our heads up. I’m just proud of this team.”
Regarding his ejection, Dončić commented, “I think everybody knows what my frustration was. When playing for the national team, there are a lot of emotions, and many times I don’t control myself, which I have had problems with. But you know, the referees told one of the guys, ‘I’m not going to call a foul on him because he is coming at us.’ I think this is not fair. I know, I complain a lot, but I don’t think this is fair. They have been playing very physical with me.”
With this historic victory, Canada now sets its sights on the semi-final clash against Serbia, a matchup that promises to be a thrilling battle.
Slovenia’s loss, means, both Germany and Serbia have earned direct qualification to the Paris 2024 Olympics as the two best-ranked European teams at the 2023 FIBA World Cup.
“As the FIBA World Cup drama unfolds, basketball fans worldwide eagerly anticipate the outcome of this momentous tournament, where Canada, the United States, Germany, and Serbia will compete for a coveted spot in the gold medal game.”