Wiggins leads Canada over Greece at FIBA Olympic qualifier in Victoria

Many criticized Andrew Wiggins for being too passive against a rough Venezuela at FIBA Americas in 2015. But in Victoria, with Canada vying for their first #Olympics in 21 years, the former NBA number one draft choice scored 23, including key baskets to lead Canada over Greece 97-91.

After only hitting one shot in the first half, RJ Barrett had a big third quarter and finished with 22, including a thunderous dunk. Nickeil Alexander-Walker sparked Canada with 13 of Canada’s first 16 in second quarter. He finished with 18. 

“I was sloppy coming out of the gate but picked it up as the game went along,” said Barrett, age 21, who added . Barrett wore the same number 9 that his father wore for Canada at 2000 Olympics, the last time Canada played. “It just feels right.”

Canada pounded the glass in the second half, out-rebounding Greece 35-31 in the game.

“We didn’t execute some of our schemes in the first half,” said Canada’s coach Nick Nurse. “I thought we had a good defensive half in the second half. We have areas to polish and correct. We have the guys to do it.”

Nurse started Saskatoon-born forward Trey Lyles to deal with a bigger Greek team that played without NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo. But Greece exploited Canada’s size by starting the game with a lob dunk off a pick ‘n roll. With no 3-second rule in FIBA, Greece clogged the key and pounded the offensive glass for points in the paint and open looks from beyond the arc.

But Canada showed their talent in the open court, as Cory Joseph lobbed to Andrew Wiggins for the flush.

Nurse called time-out with Greece up 41-35, and Canada still had trouble defending the pick and roll, which Greece used to upset USA in Japan in the 2006 world championship semi-final. “The pick and roll and low post defense gave us some problems,” said Nurse, with Canada down four at halftime. 

Greece had five more assists than Canada and three fewer turnovers in the first half. Canada continued to turn the ball over in the third quarter, with Wiggins and Barrett fumbling the ball on one play. But Wiggins settled down his team with a three, and Barrett converted a drive to bring Canada within one at 60-61. Wiggins and Barrett combined for 15 points in 7 minutes in the third quarter. Walker stole a rebound to give Canada a 74-69 lead late in third. 

“He came into camp with an ultra-aggressive mindset,” Nurse said about Walker. “I told him to stay aggressive.” 

Canada’s athleticism took over late in third quarter and early fourth. Lu Dort forced turnovers and Canada opened a 81-71 lead.  Even Barrett’s lob went in by accident. Greece fought back with some pick and rolls but Wiggins sealed the lead with clutch buckets in the final minutes. 

“If you let them go downhill off the bounce, you’ll have a tough time beating them,” said Greece coach Rick Pitino, who recruited Barrett and 3 other Canada players. “RJ Barrett in college couldn’t really shoot a 12-foot shot and I absolutely love players that work at their game and get better. I’m obviously a big Knicks fan so I’m a big RJ fan, but the fact that he’s improved so much is amazing to me.”

While praising the effort of his players, Pitino said Greece didn’t make enough second passes to take advantage of Canada’s switching. He said Greece will have to rest before playing China. “China plays as fast as any team is going to play. They have lightning quick guards.”

(words and images copyright Christopher Johnson Globalite Media all rights reserved)