The Canadian men came into the Parapan Am Games wheelchair basketball tournament looking to qualify for the Rio Paralympics and prove they could win without the veteran stars that kept them on top for more than a decade.
They did qualify for Rio but they’ve still got some ground to make up on that other front.
The Canadians were badly overpowered by a veteran American squad in the gold-medal game Saturday afternoon, and no amount of loud and proud cheering from the packed house at the Ryerson Athletic Centre could turn that around.
The Canadians were down 40-16 by the half and, at the buzzer, the Americans claimed gold 62-39.
That final score would have been even more lopsided if it weren’t for 13 points, including a trio of three-pointers, from Canada’s Nikola Goncin in the final quarter.
Still, for a rookie squad — half the team had never played at an international level competition like this before — Canadian head coach Steve Bialowas was pleased with the silver-medal finish and much of his team’s play through the tournament.
Canada’s men and women, who also left the Parapan Ams with silver, are working on a new style of wheelchair basketball and it is one they hope to have polished by the time Rio rolls around next summer.
“It is working, but it takes a lot of time to learn a new system,” Bialowas said of Canada’s aggressive give-no-ground, give-no-time style.
“If you saw us three months ago and see us now, you’d see the progress we’ve made, so I’m really happy with that. We have a lot of work to do to prepare for Rio, but we’re going to Rio.”
On paper, the Canadian-American final looked like it would be a closer game.
Both teams were undefeated in the tournament. The Americans had the best defensive record, having given up the fewest points, and the Canadians had the best record for sinking baskets.
But on the day it mattered most, the Canadian men, down from the first basket, seemed to get rattled. They rushed plays and passes and turned the ball over. And they couldn’t sink much of anything.
The only player who could find the net with any consistency in the first half was co-captain and team veteran David Eng.
At the half, he had 10 of Canada’s 16 points. The Americans had three 10-point players by that point.
“It’s just a factor of the younger players stepping up and being comfortable with the crowd, the noise, the pressure,” Bialowas said. “This was a great learning opportunity for them.”
The Canadian men, who don’t have much height on their squad, have relied on their speed to wear down other teams but the Americans had just as much speed and quite a bit more experience.
“I’m really proud of all of my teammates being able to fight that hard and never give up even though we were down that far,” Eng said.
Goncin’s final-quarter flurry, after some early struggles, was particularly heartening, he said.
“It was a little bit too late but it was great,” Eng said. “Even though we were down we wanted to have a strong finish . . . and go from there for our next games.”
And, a year out for Rio, there may be a plus side from losing.
“To lose a gold medal, it’s going to give (the players) energy to dig within themselves and get that extra motivation to get to that next level,” Eng said.
“We’re going to be ready for Rio.”
The Canadians knew that the Americans would be tough to beat — they are the reining world silver medallists and the Canadian men didn’t even qualify for the 2014 world championship.
“We were hoping it would be closer,” said Goncin, one of the team’s relative rookies.
But the mini-rally at the end, spurned on by his scoring, gave the crowd something to cheer for.
“Everyone is cheering even though we’re down 30 points, so it’s nice to at least finish the game on a good note,” he said.