Monday, 27 August 2007

Canada takes huge step to semi-finals by defeating Uruguay

LEFT: Canada's Samuel Dalembert fights for a rebound with Uruguay's Esteban Batista in this afternoon's victory by Canada over Uruguay

Establishing a solid defensive tempo from the get-go and for the most part looking as smooth offensively as they have in the entire tournament, Canada took a huge step toward qualifying for one of four semi-final spots at the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifier with a solid 95-88 victory over Uruguay (2-2) as the quarter-final round opened in Las Vegas this afternoon. Canada's two workmanlike bigs, 6'9" Jesse Young (George Mason/Peterborough, ON) and 6'9" Levon Kendall (Pitt/Vancouver, BC) matched Uruguay's grit up front as for probably the first time in the tournament, Canada experienced the rough, chippy, sometimes literally dirty play that high-stakes international basketball can turn into. Young finished with a game-high 22 points on 10-16 shooting plus 4 rebounds and from the very beginning dominated Uruguay's 6'11" Esteban Batista (Atlanta Hawks), not backing down from any physical play or mental ploys that the obviously-frustrated center began to turn to as the game progressed. Kendall (just missing a double double with 9 points/9 rebounds) made a couple of very tough shots in key spots and got on the defensive glass. Canada had several text book high/low layups and dominated the glass, outrebounding Uruguay 40-22 including 11 offensive rebounds. But this was a team effort with all 10 players who saw time influencing the result. 6'2" Jermaine Anderson made Uruguay pay for going under screens, knocking in 3 3's as part of his 13 point/4 rebound/4 assist effort in a team-high 37 minutes and Canada's best offensive player down the stretch was 6'5" Denham Brown, who scored all 7 of his points (3-4 shooting), virtually all on big, tough shots when it mattered most in the fourth quarter and made several intelligent passes to open teammates to extend possessions for better shots for teammates. If today's game is an indication, Brown is clearly buying into the "team first" concept, taking shots when in rhythm and in the context of the offense and even over-passing in one instance when his shot was there. Based on today's action, Brown should see much more time going forward. 6'5" Olu Famutimi, as he did against the USA, got Canada off to a great start, going 3 for 3 in the first quarter and finished with 9 points while 6'5" Dave Thomas was his steady self with 10 points including several clutch free throws and finishes. 6'5" Carl English also contributed despite having to deal with foul trouble all afternoon, finishing with 7 points and adding a team-high 5 assists.

Defensively, it was clear that Canada needed to limit the quality touches of Batista, including keeping him off the offensive glass, and the clean looks for 6'0" Nicolas Mazzarino (36 points vs. Mexico). Thanks to a high quality defensive game plan, Canada took Uruguay completely out of their comfort zones when defending in the quarter court (don't know for certain but having watched and been part of the preparation for Carleton as an opponent many times, I would have to guess that the scouting report had Coach Smart's fingers all over it). As a result, Canada led comfortably throughout the first half and went into the locker room at halftime with a 10 point lead at 48-38, holding Batista to just 9 points/2 rebounds and Mazzarino to only six. However, Canada's transition "d", an overlooked sore spot for the group thus far in the tournament, again hurt them as Uruguay got some open looks for 3's in transition. Later, Canada's inability to guard the ball and deal with ball screens in spots effectively allowed Uruguay to creep back in the game to trail by only 5 at 70-65 after three quarters. But Canada never let Uruguay come all the way back, despite having the lead dwindle to as little as two on multiple occasions. With Canada clinging to a two point lead at 72-70, Brown made the first of his 3 BIG shots in the fourth quarter. Later Brown dropped another jumper in rhythm to restore another 4 point lead at 76-72. When Mazzarino knocked in a jumper, Uruguay appeared to not want to go away but Canada went on a 10-5 run culminated in a put-back slam by 6'10" Samuel Dalembert (10 points) to give Canada a seven point lead at 86-79, sealing the game with just over a minute to play. With the victory, Canada moves into a tie for fourth place with Uruguay, each team at 2-2. The stakes continue to increase for Canada as they prepare to meet Argentina tomorrow at 6 PM Eastern time. If Canada can defeat Argentina and then run the table, a berth in the semi-finals is a certainty and possibly a finish that could avoid a semi-final meeting with the USA is in the cards. But Argentina presents a more difficult foe than Uruguay with 6'10" Luis Scola and 6'6" Carlos Delfino as their mainstays. Argentina just pounded Venezuela 98-62 so they appear to be rounding into form. If Canada can find ways to limit Scola's looks inside and continue their selfless work offensively, anything can happen.

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