Women Nats gun for worlds

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:14 AM ET

Maybe it's a sense of family.

Maybe it's a lack of competitive options, quite frankly.

Or maybe it's more pure: Canadian pride.

Whatever the reason, the Canadian women's basketball team has had better success than the Canadian men in getting this country's best players to play in international tournaments.

Women's coach Allison McNeill obviously is happy about the sense of commitment the best female players feel toward the national program. But she's at a loss to explain it.

"I don't know," McNeill said. "I wish I did, because I'd tell Leo right now. I'd help him, for sure."

Leo, of course, is Leo Rautins, the coach of the men's national team. Traditionally, getting the best male players to don the Maple Leaf has been a struggle, and that was in evidence recently when a kiddie-corps men's squad failed in its attempt to qualify for the 2006 world championship.

However, the prospects of short-term success for the Canadian women are more rosy.

The qualifying tournament for the women's '06 world championship starts next week in the Dominican Republic. As a warmup, Canada is in the midst of a three-game exhibition series against Puerto Rico.

The Canadians won the opener last night 77-54 at RIM Park in Waterloo with Markham's Tammy Sutton Brown leading the way with 16 points. Games 2 and 3 are on tap for tonight and tomorrow night at the same venue.

"We're excited about the opportunity this presents, not only because it's so rare that we play games in Canada, but also because Puerto Rico is the one team in the qualifying that we aren't that familiar with," McNeill said. "This will allow us to get some tape on them."

Overall, the main strategy simply is to qualify for the worlds.

The format for the qualifying tourney is a six-team round-robin (no playoffs), featuring Canada, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Argentina and Brazil. Technically, the top three teams will qualify, but Brazil -- arguably the team to beat next week -- already has clinched a spot in the '06 worlds as the host nation. So if Brazil finishes in the top three next week, then the top four teams in the event will be headed to the worlds.

"We will be very disappointed if we don't qualify," McNeill said, bluntly. "I don't care if we finish first or fourth, as long as we qualify. But realistically, first is not out of the realm.

"We feel this is the most prepared we've been in quite a while. And we're young, too."

With five games in five days, the qualifying tourney will be a grind. That means everyone on the Canadian team likely will have to contribute something at some point.

Still, every squad has its key players who definitely need to play well, and McNeill identified four of them.

"There's Teresa Kleindienst (of Abbotsford, B.C.), a veteran point guard and the person who makes us go," McNeill said. "We try to play up-tempo, because outside of (Markham's) Tammy Sutton-Brown, we're not that big. Teresa broke her nose in Brazil (during an exhibition game earlier this summer), so she has been getting used to playing with a mask.

"Tammy joined us late, for obvious reasons, because of her job in the WNBA (with the Charlotte Sting). She helps tremendously in terms of experience, rebounding and some inside scoring.

"Isabelle Grenier (of Ste-Foy, Que.) has to score on the perimeter and provide some defence.

"And not to leave the most obvious for last, but Kim Smith (of Mission, B.C.) has to be on top of her game. She's our leading scorer and leading rebounder, and she's very savvy."

Whatever happens, Canadians can feel good about the fact we're sending a women's national basketball team that represents something very close to our absolute best.

The men haven't been able to say that for a long time.


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