U-SPORTS veterans help the Canada Men’s National Team qualify for the 2023 FIBA World Cup with a big win over Venezuela
With a roster filled in with U SPORTS alums, the Canadian Senior Men’s National Basketball Team punched their ticket to the 2023 FIBA World Cup on Thursday night thanks to a 94-56 win over Venezuela in the first game of the fifth window of the FIBA Americas qualifier tournament.
In front of their home faithful at the Edmonton Expo Centre, a roster heavy on U SPORTS veterans, including former Acadia Axemen star Owen Klassen who picked up a double-double with 11 points and ten rebounds – helped the Canadian program advance to their second straight FIBA World Cup, after finishing in 21st place in 2019.
Heading into Thursday night, the goal was simple for Canada. Win, and they were in.
Entering the evening sitting first in Group E at 8-0, beating Venezuela (7-1) would ensure that Canada could finish no lower than third in Group E and earn themselves a spot in the 2023 FIBA World Cup. To advance to the World Cup would already be special; to do it on home soil would reach another level.
“A lot of us come from far away to come to play these games; being with our countrymen and especially being on Canadian soil is amazing for us,” Toronto, Ontario native and former Missouri Tiger Kassius Robertson said.
When the ball tipped off at just after 7:00 pm local time, it was a U SPORTS icon and a veteran of the national program in former Carleton Raven Tommy Scrubb, who got Canada off on the right foot.
After his brother, Phil, hit his first three for an early 5-0 lead, on four consecutive possessions Tommy Scrubb grabbed a steal, drew a foul and hit two free throws, picked up an assist and then hit a deep three of his own to give Canada a 12-3 lead halfway through the first quarter.
Defensively the swarming Canadian defence overwhelmed Venezuela as the Canadians held them to just 25% shooting from the field in the first quarter and forced multiple airballs off of contested shots.
“It’s one of the big things that we talk about is shot contests,” Canada head coach Nate Bjorkgren said. “And we really do; we want to contest every shot with everything we’ve got.”
Closing out the first quarter, the former Missouri Tiger Kassius Robertson started to heat up. After entering the game just after halfway through the first, he picked up a steal and hit his first two shots, including a three, to push the Canadian lead to 25-8, with Venezuela making it 25-10 after one quarter.
It was not the easiest of circumstances for Venezuela as issues with their visas kept them out of Edmonton until much later than they would have preferred and clearly threw off their rhythm.
“Every player and every coach, when you coach long enough, and you play long enough, you’re going to have things, circumstances like that happen,” Bjorkgren said. “We knew they were going to show up and play; that’s a very tough team, a well-coached team.”
Into the second quarter, the Venezuelan offence slowly started to turn the quarter thanks to a tag team performance from Jhornan Zamora and Nestor Colmenares.
The two Venezuelan national team veterans combined for 13 points in the quarter, part of the 21 that their side picked up. Zamora finished with 14 points on the night to lead Venezuela.
With Canada also picking up 21, it sent the Canadians into halftime up 46-31, with Tommy Scrubb leading the way with 10 points.
Into the second half, it was Robertson continuing to carry the offensive load, with the addition of some help from former Baylor Bear Kenny Chery. The 30-year-old, who joined the national team from Petkim Spor in the Turkish League, Chery picked up six points off of a pair of threes in the third, including a pull-up three that pushed the lead to 54-33, on the way to a 12 point night.
Robertson picked up another six points in the third, finishing the night with a game-high sixteen points on 6/6 shooting from the field, and the Canadians waltzed into the fourth quarter up 70-42.
With the game wrapped up, the fourth quarter saw its most exciting moment when former UBC Thunderbird Conor Morgan took the Trae Bell-Haynes alley-oop and slammed it in, igniting the Edmonton crowd.
Ultimately, thanks to six from Morgan – part of his 12 on the night – and former Axemen Owen Klassen finishing off his double-double with four rebounds in the quarter, Canada rode in cruise control to the 94-56 victory.
Despite the amount of U SPORTS talent that got Canada to this point, the question that now hangs over this team is which of these players will see the court next summer and which will need to give up their spot to potential NBA talent that might join the national program for the World Cup.
“Everyone of these guys will get a very hard look at being part of this roster,” Bjorkgren said. “There’s a few guys, Kassius, Tommy and Phil, that have been at all nine games.”
“Whatever the roster is, whatever shape it takes, every guy has tried to do their part along the way for this team and this country, and that says and means a lot.”
Canada plays once more in Edmonton as they take on Panama on Sunday, Nov. 13, before the final window of play in February 2023 sees Canada take on Argentina and Venezuela. With Panama struggling at 2-6, Sunday could be considered a freebie game for Canada, but they don’t look at it that way.
“We have a saying, we gotta prove and re-prove regardless of if we qualified or we’ve got a couple more games to go,” Robertson said. “We’re still out for blood; we’re not letting up.”