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Amihere, Pellington among Canadian women to keep an eye on this NCAA season

Nearly four months after Canada's women's basketball team was bounced from the Tokyo Olympics in the opening round, Laeticia Amihere can look back at the positives of playing on the biggest stage of her career.

Nearly four months after Canada's women's basketball team was bounced from the Tokyo Olympics in the opening round, Laeticia Amihere can look back at the positives of playing on the biggest stage of her career.

The high-flying 20-year-old from Milton, Ont., is a big reason why the South Carolina Gamecocks are off to a 7-0 start to their season, and she credits experience gained playing international basketball this past summer.

"I've been working a lot on my defence, just running and jumping and 'being disruptive,' as we call it at Canada Basketball, just trying to get my hand on every touch I can," she said Wednesday, from Columbia, S.C.

"I was able to guard a lot of the best players in the world (in Tokyo). So, I think that really helped me translate to our defence here in South Carolina."

The six-foot-two junior forward headlines a solid group of young Canadian women playing key roles on their NCAA teams this season.

The Canadian women's team was touted as a potential medal threat in Tokyo before the COVID-19 pandemic virtually shuttered the program for nearly 18 months.

Canada went 1-2 in the preliminary round and didn't advance. Longtime head coach Lisa Thomaidis and Canada Basketball agreed to part ways when Thomaidis's contract expired post-Tokyo.

Amihere, who first shot to fame by dunking in a high school game when she was just 15, made her Olympic debut in Tokyo. Her best game was a 10-point, six-rebound performance in a 10-point loss to Spain. 

"I think I did well," Amihere said on her Olympic debut. "Obviously, it was a new stage for me. It was the first time for me to really get those minutes, and go out there and have an impact like I did there."

While the results were heartbreaking for the Canadian women, Amihere said she learned a lot from the more than two months spent with the national team -- first in a "bubble" in Tampa, Fla., then the AmeriCup tournament in Puerto Rico, where she averaged a team-high 13 points a game, and then finally Japan.

"It was a great experience. Not only Tokyo but leading up to that, we were together in a bubble for almost two-and-a-half months," she said. "That whole experience kind of gave me like an overseas lifestyle, being with the players, being in a bubble, being in a foreign country, practicing every day, it was really just basketball. 

"It's a different experience from college where you have school and activities. But (with the national team), you really just focused on basketball and focused on getting better every single day."

Amihere, who rebounded from tearing her ACL in high school, helped the Gamecocks to a solid season last year that saw them lose to Stanford by a point in the NCAA tournament semifinals. 

This season, Amihere is averaging 7.7 points per game on 44.7 per cent shooting. She scored 18 points against Oregon at the Battle 4 Atlantic tournament, shooting a career-best 6-for-19 from the field.

She's second on the team with 10 steals, and with her speed, length and excellent passing ability, coach Dawn Staley has talked about the Canadian's role this season.

"We absolutely need her," Staley told reporters. “She’s unafraid. I'd rather have somebody out there that's unafraid. She's not afraid to make mistakes."

Arizona guard Shaina Pellington, who also played for Canada in Tokyo, has maintained the momentum after helping the Wildcats to the NCAA final last season -- they lost to Stanford by a point.

The Pickering, Ont., native is averaging 6.1 points a game, and has eight steals.

Playing together on youth national teams, Amihere said the NCAA women share a strong bond.

"We have a little group chat, so we talk all the time," Amihere said. "I grew up with these girls, especially Shaina. I've played with her from national team since the beginning. So being able to see them excel on the highest level . . .  I saw Shaina hit a buzzer-beater (in Arizona's 48-46 win over Vanderbilt last week), I was excited for her. I support my sisters."

None of the NCAA players will be available to play for Canada in its next international event, FIBA World Cup qualifying in February. But Amihere will cheering them on from afar.

"I’m confident in the team and a new coaching staff that we're going to have to compete in February," she said. "I'm really confident that we're going to qualify (for the World Cup, Sept. 22 to Oct. 1, 2022 in Sydney, Australia) and have a new start for Canada Basketball."

Here are some other Canadian women to keep an eye on this NCAA season:

Aaliyah Edwards, University of Connecticut; Merissah Russell, Louisville; Shayeann Day-Wilson, Duke; Latasha Lattimore, Texas; Taya Hanson and Maggie Besselink, Arizona State; Sarah Te-Biasu, Virginia Commonwealth University; Yvonne Ejim, Gonzaga; Brynn Masikewich, UCLA; Phillipina Kyei, Oregon; Tara Wallack, Washington State.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2021. 

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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