Canada’s basketball rivalry with Venezuela remains very much alive.
Despite a significant roster change for Canada since a semi-final loss to Venezuela in the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship, a loss that cost them an Olympic appearance, Friday night’s matchup in Caracas picked up right where the two nations left off as both teams continued their push to qualify for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
Continuity in lineups and a raucous home crowd proved to play in Venezuela’s favour, as Canada would go on to fall 84-76 in its first of two Americas Qualifiers Window 5 games.
Kyle Wiltjer led Canada with 21 points and four 3-pointers, while Phil Scrubb had 16 points and four assists. Brady Heslip also added 14 points, including three 3-pointers.
Jose Vargas scored 15 points for Venezuela and Gregory Echenique notched a double-double recording 10 points and 12 rebounds.
Despite a slow pace to start the game, three pointers from Heslip, Wiltjer and Scrubb helped uplift Canada’s offence in the early stages of the quarter and provided a counterpunch to Venezuela’s efficient post and mid-range scoring. Both teams took time to feel out their offences, as the first quarter ended in a 17-17 tie.
Joel Anthony was relied upon to provide an inside presence for Canada, particularly with rebounding and rim protection, and the 36 year-old Center would go on to notch eight points, six rebounds and a blocked shot by the end of the half.
Despite an increase in on-ball defensive pressure from Venezuela behind a crowd that picked up energy in the second quarter, Canada managed to continue keeping the game at bay with their pace and advantage in three point shooting. A Wiltjer hook shot coming out of a timeout tied the game at 37-37 to end the period, putting Canada in an ideal position heading into halftime on the road.
The second half opened with a couple of uncharacteristic possessions, as Thomas Scrubb missed an open fast break lay-up, which was then followed by an airballed 3-point attempt by Aaron Best. Unforced turnovers and missed opportunities began to add up for Canada, allowing Venezuela to slowly build some distance in the third quarter as they headed into the fourth quarter with a four-point lead.
Venezuela increased their lead to six points on a couple of possessions, but a Heslip 3-pointer off of an inbounds play with 5:58 left in the game cut the lead to 68-65. A poor sequence by Canada then allowed four straight points, growing Venezuela’s lead back 72-65 and forcing head coach Roy Rana to call a timeout.
After missing five 3-point attempts in a row, Heissler Guillent would convert on his sixth attempt, giving Venezuela their then-largest lead of the game at 77-69 as the game neared the 2-minute remaining mark.
Canada still had a chance to make a final run, but a routine pass from Scrubb off of an inbounds play was fumbled by Wiltjer, leading to a Vargas floater on the other end to help Venezuela go on to secure the win, along with the top spot in Group F standings.
Canada will resume play in Window 5 on Monday as they face Brazil in Sao Paulo, while a rematch with Venezuela will take place on February 24th in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. That will be Canada’s final game of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Americas Qualifiers.
- Kyle Wiltjer a focal point: This was Kyle Wiltjer’s first game with Canada in this qualifying process, and without the benefit of some form of training camp prior to this game, it wasn’t entirely clear from what his role would be. But the former Gonzaga standout had an immediate impact as a starter, and his usage was significant. Wiltjer scored 21 points off of 18 shots, which is good for 50% more attempts than the team’s past leaders on offence, Scrubb and Heslip. It looked like Wiltjer had the green light to take his defenders one-on-one on various plays, and he looked increasingly comfortable being the number one option as the game progressed.
- Phil Scrubb on the World Cup roster?: Phil Scrubb’s play in Friday’s loss was impressive, and he showed signs that he should be in the conversation for making the World Cup roster. Scrubb looked very comfortable under pressure, and was able to make aggressive drives to the basket on a number of plays when the team needed scoring early in the game. He was a perfect three of three from long-range, and on one play was able to create space in transition for a pull-up 3-pointer.
- Testing lineups on-the-go: In a game that was close from the opening minute to the final buzzer, Rana played all 12 players at one point in the game or another – an indication that the fluctuation in the roster was something the coaching staff was still trying to get a feel for. Last-minute addition Kadre Gray saw minutes at the end of the first half, while Conor Morgan was inserted into the game late in the third quarter. With three games remaining in the Americas Qualifiers, it’s not the most ideal time to try and get a feel for different lineups, but that’s the position the team is in. The offence did look much more fluid in the second half, a good sign that the chemistry is able to quickly improve as they head into Monday’s game against Brazil.
- Speaking of Conor Morgan…: The coaching staff may have had a pleasant surprise with what Morgan is able to bring to the team. As mentioned, the former U.B.C. Thunderbird forward didn’t enter the game until late in the third quarter, but after providing quality minutes with Anthony taking a breather on the bench, Morgan found himself back on the floor in the fourth quarter in a lineup that included Phil and Thomas Scrubb, Heslip and Anthony, as Canada looked to make a final run in the game. Morgan looked comfortable in the flow of the offence, was able to get open for a dunk on one play off of a Phil Scrubb pass, and he was also able to get to the line. His length and activity on defence forced an important turnover at the 6:27 in the fourth quarter. Morgan’s total minute-count was only 07:13, but with his ability to provide some reliability in play behind Anthony, he may see a more significant role moving forward
Written & Photo by Trung Ho