By Raine Hernandez
While it wasn’t pretty in the beginning and late stages of the game, the Canadian men’s basketball team held on to win 96-87 over Nigeria at the Mattamy Athletic Centre on Aug. 7.
It was in front of a sold out crowd in downtown Toronto where Canada would begin their quest of clinching a spot in the Olympics for the first time since 2000.
Things looked pretty shaky for Canada early on, struggling to create momentum as the lack of chemistry was on display. Sloppy plays resulted in six turnovers and them falling behind 20-13 at the end of the first quarter.
When it looked like their deficit would not stop growing, Canada would catch fire, connecting on nine threes in the second quarter alone. Baylor product Brady Heslip and forward Kyle Wiltjer led the way, each with three triples in the first half to give Canada a nine-point lead.
Canada shot at an amazing clip of 41 per cent as the team notched a total of 15 threes on the night.
“When we move the ball and cut hard, then we’re going to get shots,” head coach Nick Nurse said.
Forward Melvin Ejim connected on 3-5 shooting from downtown while Wiltjer was 4-9, but it was Heslip that was the most accurate, finishing the contest shooting 4-5 from beyond the arc.
In the third quarter, Canada was in cruise control but after forward Kelly Olynyk had to be helped off the court after awkwardly slipping on the floor, Canada’s lead began to decay and Minnesota Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie started to take over for Nigeria.
Okogie had a game-high 18 points but despite his efforts, Canada was able to lean on young point guard Andrew Nembhard off the bench. The 19-year-old gave Nurse valuable minutes down the stretch, with all of his eight points coming in the final quarter to help Canada escape with a nine-point win.
Olynyk had 11 points in 16 minutes before exiting the game in the third with an apparent knee injury. He’s expected to have an x-ray done, according to Nurse.
Former Ryerson guard Aaron Best came into the game like a bolt of lighting and had quite the sequence early in the fourth, stealing the ball after his own missed shot, and then later into the possession, converting on a put-back off a Heslip miss.
Best played 12 minutes on the night and had three points to go along with four rebounds. Since graduating Ryerson in 2016, he’s had stints with the Raptors 905 in the G-League and overseas in Germany.
After the game, Wiltjer spoke about what it was like to play in front of a sold out crowd at home in preparation for the FIBA World Cup in China.
“It’s really cool for us playing in front of a country that supports us,” Wiltjer said. “When you go to an event like the World Cup, you have to have a country behind you. It’s a big-time deal. For us, before we go, just knowing that this support is behind us and seeing this arena here tonight packed, it’s really cool to see.”
UP NEXT: Canada will travel to Winnipeg to face Nigeria again on Aug. 9 in their second exhibition contest