Canadian women beat the U.S. to collect first-ever Pan Am basketball gold

TORONTO — Kia Nurse poured in 33 points to lift Canada’s women’s basketball team to a 81-73 victory over the United States on Monday night, and its first-ever Pan American Games gold medal.

Natalie Achonwa, playing her first tournament with Canada since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee in the spring of 2014, added 13.

Tamara Tatham chipped in with 10 points for the Canadians, whose depth and attention to defence made them the class of the tournament. They reeled off one five wins in five nights — Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, and finally the United States.

The Canadians led by as many as 17 points in front of a delirious sell-out crowd of about 3,300 flag-waving fans at Ryerson University’s Mattamy Athletic Centre. They took an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter.

The Americans trailed just 78-73 with 18 seconds to play, but a free throw by Achonwa, and two by Nurse with seven seconds left — and the crowd chanting “M-V-P!” — sealed Canada’s victory.

Nurse, who’s uncle is former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb and brother is Edmonton Oilers prospect Darnell Nurse, was coming off an NCAA title with the Connecticut Huskies — and her poise in big games showed Monday night.

The 19-year-old — whose name was trending on Twitter in Toronto — added five rebounds, three assists, a pair of steals and a block. And when she went down in a massive collision with just under four minutes left, and was helped off the court, the crowd saluted her rock-solid performance with a standing ovation.

Canada had never won a Pan Am basketball gold, on either the men’s or women’s side. The women’s best result was a silver at the 1999 Games in Winnipeg.

The Pan Ams have been both a rare chance for these women to shine on home turf — their last significant tournament at home was in 1999 in Hamilton — and the perfect preparation for the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament that tips off Aug. 9 in Edmonton.

The Americans — including Nurse’s UConn teammates Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson — dominated a frazzled-looking Canadian squad in the first quarter, taking a 23-13 lead into the second.

But the Canadians settled down in the second, and the United States went cold. The Americans extended their lead to a game-high 11 before the Canadians reeled off 10 unanswered points.

A steal by Nurse that led to a Fields bucket put the home team up 31-30 for their first lead of the game with just under four minutes left in the half, and the teams went into the halftime dressing room tied at 36-36.

The Canadians kept their foot on the gas in the third, pushing their lead to 60-43 before taking a 62-51 advantage into the fourth.

The Canadians’ strong performance here bodes well for next month’s qualifying tournament where they’ll face virtually the same teams. Canada has to win the tournament to earn an automatic berth, but the Americans have already booked their spot in Rio and so won’t be in Edmonton.

The men’s Pan Am tournament, meanwhile, tips off on Tuesday.

The Canadian Press