SAITAMA, Japan — A theme in the aftermath of Canada's opening loss to Serbia in the Olympic women's basketball tournament is that few teams go the length without losing.
Game 1 would be their "rock bottom." The way forward would be up.
"It's a long tournament, everybody's journey is different," said Canadian guard Kia Nurse. "If that is the depth that we get to, rock bottom, we'll take it in that first game versus later in the tournament.
"And we just knew that if we played well against Korea ... then we'd be all right."
The Canadians indeed bounced back in emphatic fashion Thursday with a 74-53 victory over South Korea, pulling away down the stretch thanks to a huge 54-32 advantage on the boards and a balanced offensive attack.
Bridget Carleton led the way with 18 points and seven rebounds, while her Minnesota Lynx teammate Natalie Achonwa added 14 points and 10 rebounds and Kayla Alexander chipped in with 10 points. Nurse finished with nine.
"Any win in the Olympics is something to be celebrated," Achonwa said. "So, we're gonna take today and really just relish in the moment that we got a big win against a good team. I'm just really proud of our team and the effort and how we came back from a loss that was disappointing for us."
Park Ji Su of the Las Vegas Aces, South Korea's lone WNBA player, had 15 points.
After a close first half, Canada broke the game open with an 8-0 third-quarter run for a 13-point lead. The Canadians went into the fourth up 49-39.
South Korea pulled to within six, but Carleton muscled to the hoop for a layup and drew a foul, and Canada was back up by nine. Carleton was excellent down the stretch and her turnaround jumper had the Canadians up by 13 with 5:37 to play, and they never looked back.
Achonwa is playing in Tokyo after missing the last 10 WNBA games for Minnesota with a sprained medial collateral ligament in her right knee, and looked more comfortable than she had earlier in the week.
"Nat was fantastic, her poise and her basketball IQ and her toughness really shone through for us," said head coach Lisa Thomaidis.
Canada, ranked fourth heading into Tokyo, closes the group stage against No. 3 Spain on Sunday. A victory would guarantee a spot in the quarterfinals. The top two teams in each group advance to the quarters, along with the two best third-place teams overall.
If momentum can make a difference, Thomaidis believes her team will be in good form against Spain.
"Our goal is (to play) 40 minutes of Canada-style basketball, and we got closer to that today for sure," the coach said. "So ... ride the wave so to speak when you're on a positive streak, and you have to find ways to forget about it if you're on a downswing. I think this team has done a really good job of that."
After losing in the quarterfinals in both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, the Canadian women arrived in Tokyo with a best-ever world ranking and intent on climbing the medium podium. The goal had been victories in all three group games, which would have ensured a favourable draw in the second round.
But Canada coughed up what could play out to be a costly narrow loss to Serbia in the team's first major international game together since clinching an Olympic berth way back in February of 2020 in Belgium.
"We treated (South Korea) as a must-win," Carleton said. "Essentially, that's what it was for us. Every game is the most important. So, that's what we were focused on, beating Korea, and then we'll do the same thing with Spain."
Canada did a better job Thursday of getting the ball inside rather than settling for long jumpers. They took just 14 three-pointers, making four, after shooting five-for-26 from distance earlier in the week.
They outrebounded South Korea 22-9 on the offensive glass, and held their opponent to 34 per cent shooting and 19 per cent from three-point range.
"I think it starts with our defence, our tenacious aggression, on the ball, off the ball, talking, flying around, just playing together," Carleton said. "And that's what translates into transition and easier looks on the offensive end, and everyone touching the ball and (the ball) is moving. We get our energy from our defence. So that's what we pride ourselves in."
In their first Olympic appearance since 2008, the No. 19 South Koreans, meanwhile, were coming off a four-point loss to Spain in their opener that had Thomaidis talking about the parity in a 12-team tournament where "every game at the Olympics is pressure-packed."
Canada drew the early game Thursday, with a 10 a.m. tipoff at Saitama Super Arena, an odd start time for basketball.
"I'm a morning person, so I don’t mind it at all — although 5:30 was a little early to wake up for the hour drive here. But we were ready, we were prepared for this, we knew we were gonna have two 10 a.m. games," said Carleton. "So it's been on our mind."
Sunday's game is also a 10 a.m. tipoff.
Canada got off to a great start against the Koreans, and led by six points late in the first quarter. South Korea capitalized on some defensive miscues for a 5-0 run to end the quarter, and Canada took a 16-15 edge into the second.
Shay Colley, back after suffering an apparent shoulder injury in Game 1, scored on a driving layup after a steal by Nurse with 37 seconds left in the half, and the Canadians had five points of breathing room — 33-28 — at halftime.
While the team refuses to use the past 18 months as an excuse, taking a game to find their rhythm isn't a big surprise. Due to the pandemic, the Canadian women spent most of the last year-and-a-half stationed at various points abroad, their only connection via Zoom calls.
Minus their trio of WNBA players Achonwa, Nurse and Carleton, the Canadians finally gathered in Tampa, Fla., in May at the Toronto Raptors' temporary training facility. They finished fourth in the FIBA AmeriCup in Puerto Rico last month. Their WNBA contingent finally joined the team two weeks ago in Japan.
Basketball is being played at the Saitama Super Arena, which has a moving block that can stretch the stadium's capacity from 19,000 — the configuration for the Olympic basketball games — to about 37,000.
With no fans permitted due to Tokyo's state of emergency amid rising COVID-19 cases, Canada's chef de mission Marnie McBean, banging on a large drum, was a one-woman cheering section. Otherwise, the voices of players hollering directions were easy to hear over the squeak of sneakers.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the Canadians had a 16-point lead in the first quarter.