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On the heels of Pan Am victory, Canada's basketball team takes aim at Rio berth

Canada's women's basketball team was offered the chance to cut down the nets after its historic gold-medal performance at the Pan American Games.

The women refused. Their work wasn't done.

The Pan Ams were a warmup, the Canadian women say, for what's really important — a victory at the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament and a berth in next summer's Games in Rio.

"Kim (Gaucher, Canada's captain) made that call," coach Lisa Thomaidis said of the decision to the leave the nets intact. "She just said, 'This isn't what we trained for. Our summer is about qualifying for the Olympics, and getting the gold at FIBA Americas. Once we do that, we'll cut that net down.'"

Canada downed the United States in the Pan Am final to win the first-ever gold for a Canadian basketball team in a major international tournament.

But as glorious as the victory was in itself, it was also crucial practice for the 10-team FIBA Americas tournament that tips off Sunday in Edmonton. Canada needs to win the tournament to qualify.

"That was a great run-through for us, to play South American and Central American opponents and see exactly where we measure up," Thomaidis said.

"We always say we want to get teams to expose our weaknesses, and although the outcome was exactly what we wanted, the process was exactly what we needed, so we were able to get exposed in some areas that we wanted to focus on early in this phase so that we would be that much better for the competition. Definitely served its purpose."

The Canadians, who went undefeated through the Pan Am tournament, open Sunday against Puerto Rico,. They then face Chile on Monday, the Dominican Republic on Tuesday and Cuba on Thursday.

Canada's three-point win over Cuba was its smallest margin of victory at the Pan Ams.

But the Canadians didn't entirely show their hand in Toronto, walking a fine line between doing enough to win, and not giving up too much tactical information against the teams they'd be facing a couple of weeks later.

"We definitely didn't want to throw it all out there, because we knew we're going to be seeing those teams again," said Edmonton's Michelle Plouffe. "It's a good thing that we didn't need to use it, and that we still have it to use."

The Pan Ams also provided the perfect chance for the Canadians to become accustomed to noise and the pressure of competing at home. Canada hadn't hosted a major international women's event since the 1995 FIBA Americas tournament in Hamilton.

The Pan Am tournament saw the Canadians play in front of full houses of 4,000-plus fans at Ryerson University's Mattamy Athletic Centre.

"That was huge," Thomaidis said. "We have never had the opportunity in the past, and it was a new thing to be aware of and contend with, and have to deal with. As much as you talk about it and you try to prepare the team for what they're going to see with media attention and such, you really can't relay to them what it's going to be like.

"So that was really good for us to go through that and be tat much better prepared for this time around."

Group B at the has the Virgin Islands, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil.

Thomaidis said all but Brazil will field virtually identical teams to the squads at Pan Ams. Brazil has added three players since Toronto, including two former WNBA players.

Kia Nurse, who was phenomenal in the team's victory over the U.S., carried Canada's flag into the closing ceremonies of the Pan Am Games. Then the women dispersed to their various homes across the country to relax for 10 days.

They gathered in Edmonton to resume training on Monday.

The 22-year-old Plouffe, whose twin sister Katherine is also on the team, said the reaction to Canada's Pan Am victory has been a pleasant surprise.

"It's been really cool, even when we were travelling back home, people in the airport were like 'We watched you play.'

"I've actually had parents come up and say their daughters were inspired by us, by watching us. It's been really cool, the last couple of weeks, to hear that."

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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