Bridget Carleton laughed when describing Victor Lapena’s infectious excitement at practice.
On the heels of its early exit from the Tokyo Olympics, Lapena was hired to take Canada’s seemingly stagnant women’s basketball team to the next level, and the high-octane Spaniard has injected an immediate boost of energy.
“He’s passionate, he’s so fun to be around, he just brings so much energy to the gym,” Carleton said from Australia earlier this week. “He gets into a defensive stance, it’s hilarious to watch, but you can just feel how passionate he is about the game, how much he cares about us and wants us to be successful.
“He trusts us and he has a lot of fun, he brings a lot of fun energy.”
The energy is contagious, and it showed in Canada’s 67-60 victory over Serbia in the FIBA World Cup on Thursday morning, a win that likely went a long way in the team’s chances to advance.
The Canadians next face a tough test on Friday against France, a team that upset host Australia in its World Cup opener.
Natalie Achonwa, who had 10 points and eight rebounds against the Serbs, who beat Canada at the Tokyo Olympics, is the lone holdover from the 2012 London Olympic team.
After being quarter-finalists in 2012 and ‘16, hopes for the Canadian women to win a medal have been sky-high. Achonwa said change was the best chance to achieve that goal.
“You need something different for a different outcome,” said Achonwa, a 29-year-old forward for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx.
“It’s a complete change of speed. But one that I think we’ve all really embraced,” she added. “There’s a lot of words that I think of when I talk about Victor: energetic, explosive … but bringing out that energy and that spark and that fight has been great, and it’s definitely a change of pace for us and one that I think challenges us as well.”
The 47-year-old Lapena replaced Canadian Lisa Thomaidis, who coached Canada to a best-ever No. 4 ranking to cap her nine years in charge. Lapena has coached 10 pro teams in Spain, Russia and Turkey, plus logged more than a decade with Spain’s national program at both the youth and senior women’s levels.
He most recently led Fenerbahce to an unbeaten season and a Turkish Cup title, and was named EuroLeague Women’s coach of the year in 2020.
Raising his kids in Canada, with its highly ranked education system, was a big draw, he said.
Thursday’s win marked Kia Nurse’s first game since tearing her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee almost a year ago, and her first experience playing for Lapena.
The 26-year-old Phoenix Mercury guard, who had nine points in 19 minutes against Serbia, said new can be exciting and unpredictable – exactly what the Canadian women needed to be able to leave behind the frustration of the Tokyo Olympic quadrennial and look ahead to Paris in 2024.
“We were really similar and kind of the same for a long time,” Nurse said. “And there’s a lot of unpredictability to what we want to do offensively and defensively, to what this coaching staff and what Victor wants to do as schemes. And so I like that about our team. We’re young, we’re exciting, we’re excited to be here. And I think a little bit of that unpredictability will give us a shot at some special stuff.”
She’s also loves Lapena’s enthusiasm.
“He’s brought an energy to us that I’m not sure we’ve seen before,” Nurse said this week from Australia. “Like, when I tell you, this man has energy, there’s a different level of energy that Victor has every single day, like never tires type of energy. And what I love is that he loves to teach the game”
Lapena was pleased with the poise his team showed against Serbia, the 2020 EuroBasket champion. Trailing in the early minutes, the Canadians took the lead for good in the second quarter, and then staved off every Serb run.
“Coach is always on us about being poised no matter if you have the ball down low or are bringing it up the court,” guard Shay Colley said.
Serbia was all over the glass in the early going, outrebounding the Canadians 15-7 in the first quarter and grabbing six offensive boards to Canada’s one.
The Canadians regrouped and held Serbia to zero offensive rebounds in the second quarter, and by halftime Canada had forced 11 Serbian turnovers.
By game’s end, the Serbs had coughed up the ball 19 times to Canada’s 14.
Carleton, who had seven points, five rebounds, two steals and a block in the victory, had predicted Canada’s defensive energy and versatility would pay off in Australia.
“The way we’re able to switch from different defences, we have like five different defences we can throw at teams. In exhibition games [versus China and Puerto Rico], we ran all five against both of those teams and that’s really fun just to keep other teams on their toes and kind of mix ‘em up a little bit,” said Carleton, a forward for the Lynx.
Achonwa said it’s interesting that Lapena doesn’t necessarily scout for particular sets or particular teams.
“We are putting in place a structure of how we play,” she said. “That really helps because when you are put in situations like ‘Oh, they didn’t run the play right, what are we going to do?’ you take away those, when you put in such a defensive structure that you can mould and bend to whoever you’re playing, or whatever play they’re running.”
No. 4 Canada needs to finish top four in its group to advance to the knockout stage. After facing sixth-ranked France, the Canadians takes on Japan, the reigning Olympic silver medalists, on Sunday, then Australia on Monday before wrapping up group play on Tuesday against Mali.