Just minutes before the players rolled onto the court for the women’s wheelchair basketball final, a riff of “American Woman” played until the soundman thought better of it and faded to another song.
As it turns out, it was the American women who rocked the court to take the Parapan Am gold medal, but not without a fight from the Canadians.
Two baskets separated the teams with a little more than a minute to go but it never got any closer and, at the buzzer, it was 80-72 for the Americans.
“We played hard, they played hard,” said Canada’s Janet McLachlan. “A few more of their buckets went in and that happens in basketball.”
McLachlan, with a game-high 27 points, had no trouble finding the net but she shrugged that off.
“It’s the total on the board that counts,” she said.
There was a time that Canadian women were unbeatable in wheelchair basketball and they’ve been rebuilding — with new players and a new style of play — to get back to the dominant position they once held.
Friday night’s tight game and their easy victories over some other teams here, along with a world championship title last year, suggest they are heading the right way a year out of the Rio Paralympics.
“We know we still have to practise and improve our game and style of play,” said Cindy Ouellet, who was one of Canada’s strongest defenders throughout the tournament.
“This just tells us we need to be better.”
Saturday it’s the Canadian men’s turn to face their American rivals in the final and they’ll be hoping for a more golden result.
Speed is always a huge component in wheelchair basketball, as a player with great chair-handling skills can keep an opponent from moving down the court, effectively taking them out of the game.
The Canadians have plenty of speed. But — as the men discovered in a couple matchups on their way to the final — height matters, too, and they don’t have much of that.
In the first quarter of the men’s 70-54 semifinal win over Brazil Friday afternoon, the big Brazilian forwards were all but unstoppable.
Nikola Goncin, one of Canada’s top scorers in the Parapan Am tournament, caught a long pass but instead of maneuvering through traffic with his usual grace to score, he found Luciano Da Silva blocking his way or knocking the ball from his hands before he could shoot.
Brazil’s other towering player, Leandro De Miranda, sat in the key taking his time to set up one-handed shots with three Canadian players stretching out their fingertips but simply unable to get near the ball.
But, by the midpoint of the second quarter, the Canadians had used their fitness and fast-paced game to wear down Brazil’s big players.
The Canadians were up 34-29 at the half and never relinquished the lead.
The win earned them a trip to next summer’s Rio Paralympics.
“We knew they had a height mismatch against us,” said David Eng, the game high-scorer with 28 points, before adding with a smile, “but we play a really fast pace.”
He was referring to Canada’s new style of play that both the men and women’s teams hope will get the nation back to their old dominant position.
“We made their big guys push real hard,” Toronto’s Adam Lancia said. “In wheelchair basketball if you’re pushing hard you’ve got to shoot and pass and dribble with those same arms so your ability to make good shots and passes, that you’d usually make if you were a little more rested, goes down,” he said.
It certainly did. Brazil’s made 45 per cent of its shots in the first quarter. By the last quarter it was down to 34 per cent.
The Canadians started and ended at 54 per cent.
The Americans watched the whole game from the sidelines, sizing up their rivals.
“It will be the first matchup this tournament where they’re as fast as us in every position,” Eng said. “It’s going to be a great match.”