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Former ND basketball star Achonwa will be available for Canada at Pan Am Games

05/12/2015 06:37 EDT | Updated 05/12/2016 05:59 EDT
Canada's women's basketball camp tipped off with good news: Natalie Achonwa will be available to play in this summer's Pan American Games in Toronto.

The former Notre Dame star missed last year's world championships after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament. There was also concern about her professional plans as she's preparing for her rookie season with the Indiana Fever.

"She'll be with us for Pan Ams, has got the time off from her WNBA team, which is fantastic," Canada's head coach Lisa Thomaidis said. "It's just a matter of how she continues to progress and stays healthy. So that's exciting."

The Canadian women gathered in Edmonton this week to begin preparations for a huge summer that includes the Pan Am Games and Olympic qualifying.

Achonwa was just one star in a talented group of women — a reflection of the growth of the game in Canada, and the depth of the talent the program has, Thomaidis said.

"When we were sitting at our first meeting, we had 21 athletes sitting there — all-Americans, all-Canadians, national champions, MVPs of foreign leagues, the list just goes on and on, it's amazing," Thomaidis said.

Achonwa was in Edmonton for only a couple of days before returning to her pro team, but Thomaidis was pleased with what she saw from the 22-year-old from Guelph, Ont. Achonwa tore her ACL in what would be her final game for Notre Dame, sitting out the NCAA Final Four, and the world championships where the Canadians finished fifth.

Thomaidis said the six-foot-three forward was a bit shaky in her first practice, but the difference between Day 1 and Day 2 was remarkable.

"By Day 2 ... as soon as there's something on the line, she's such a strong competitor and she has such great basketball IQ, she did so much better the second day and (was) moving better," she said. "For her it's just going to be a matter of getting her timing back, her feel back, so after that I was like, 'OK, you're going to be just fine in a couple months when we need her for Pan Ams.'

"So that was encouraging, it was great to have her in. To reconnect and have her reconnect with her teammates."

Thomaidis was thrilled with both the fitness and athleticism of the players in camp and their size.

"I think there are about 10 of them who are 6-3 or taller, so the overall athleticism, the overall length of the athletes who are here is just improving every year, and then just the physical condition that they come in," she said. "Now we're at a point where they're literally world-class athletes that are all coming in. They're in great shape, they're strong, they're fit.

"That part is really exciting to see, that they take their training very seriously and they know where they need to be to have a shot at this level. When all that stuff is done and you just have to work on basketball, it's a huge step up."

Kayla Alexander, who plays for the WNBA's San Antonio Stars, was the only player invited to camp that chose not to attend.

Thomaidis said she would cut the numbers down to about 16 on Thursday. The team will practise in Edmonton until May 25 when they fly first to Spain, and then France, for exhibition games ahead of the July 10-26 Pan Am Games.

Edmonton will host the FIBA Americas women's qualifying tournament from Aug. 9-16.

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