Throughout the FIBA Olympic Qualifying tournament, it felt inevitable that Canada would play France in a winner-takes-all showdown for the last spot in Rio. And, sadly, ever since Canada disappointed in the Mexico tournament last summer, it felt inevitable they'd lose their spot to the more experienced European squad. It came to pass; France pulled out a 83-74 victory down the stretch, led by its group of unflappable NBA players.
There were encouraging signs for Canada in the first half. The team was staying with France despite allowing them to shoot 50 percent from the floor. Cory Joseph, the team's unquestioned leader, looked unstoppable with 12 first half points. Meanwhile, Melvin Ejim couldn't miss from deep, going 3-for-3. Even with NBA champion Tristan Thompson in foul trouble, Canada was playing big.
On the other side of things, former Raptor (and current cap figure) Nando de Colo laid down a 6-for-7 onslaught for 13 points in the first half to pace France. While it was the cool captain of France, Boris Diaw, who hit the three at the buzzer to give his home nation the 39-36 lead. France looked sharp. And then, the second half began.
After a huge block from Diaw, a big three from Tony Parker and then a steal and easy layup from de Colo, suddenly the Canadians found themselves down ten with only Joseph doing anything to scare the opposition in the third quarter. If it felt grim knowing at the time that Canada would have to wait an entire year for another chance to qualify for the Olympics, it was doubly bad watching said chance slip away.
As the seconds ticked by in the fourth, and the turnovers mounted (Canada had 21 in total), it became clear our hometown guys just did not have enough expertise and poise to counteract the presence of France. Despite a barrage from Ejim, who sat late with foul trouble and finished with a 19 points, and a big time three from Anthony Bennett (seven points, five rebounds) of all people, it was not enough. Joseph finished the game with a team-leading 20 points and six assists, but somehow also had seven turnovers. This was the story of the game.
For France, Parker led all scorers with 26 points and hit the dagger three that put the game out of reach for Canada. Meanwhile, de Colo tossed in 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting. And while he didn't shoot the ball particularly well, Diaw was a presence on both ends, anchoring the defense and constantly applying pressure on the offensive end with sharp passes again and again. France had their own share of turnovers (16), but they did not allow themselves to become undone.
And so it goes for Canada's Olympic hopes. The team was playing without a couple of big name players -- Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Olynyk, for example -- and at times it showed. It's hard not to wonder what if. It's also hard not to think back to a year ago, when Canada lost to Venezuela by one point in the FIBA Americas tournament. It was a heartbreaking loss at the time because many knew where it would lead: to this moment of disappointment.
Now all Canada can do is look to 2020 and hope for a better result.