The NCAA’s Final Four will feature a healthy helping of Canadian content when the women hit the hard court on Friday.
All four participating teams boast a Canadian basketball star with Laeticia Amihere, from Mississauga, Ont., on South Carolina, Ottawa’s Merissah Russell on Louisville, Toronto’s Alyssa Jerome with Stanford and Aaliyah Edwards of Kingston, Ont., on Connecticut.
Beyond vying for the coveted U.S collegiate basketball championship, bragging rights are also at stake in a Canadian hoops group chat that includes good friends Amihere, Russell and Edwards.
Their normal congenial jabber has progressed to light chirping as the trio advances closer to college basketball’s ultimate prize.
“There’s a little trash-talking but at the end of the day we’re all just proud of ourselves for coming to the Final Four and making it this far,” Edwards said.
The three players say they will have no problem putting the friendship on hold this weekend.
“We talk about it in the group chat,” said Amihere. “It’s ‘good luck’ until we play you, right? So, we want you to do the best as you can in every single game, and then when we play you it’s all business.”
The trio are all around the same age – Amihere and Russell are both 20, while Edwards is 19 – and have all played together on the Canadian national team. Edwards and Amihere both represented Canada at the Tokyo Olympics, while Russell served as an alternate.
Jerome, a fifth-year senior, has worked out and interacted with other three but is not part of their social group.
Amihere’s Gamecocks, who enter the weekend as the No. 1 ranked team in women’s college basketball, will square off against Russell’s Cardinals in Friday’s opening game.
Last year, South Carolina dropped a heartbreaking 66-65 semi-final decision to Jerome’s Stanford squad.
Stanford later edged Arizona 54-53 to win the national championship.
Amihere knows the bitter taste of defeat that remains in her mouth will only go away if the Gamecocks can take care of some unfinished business in the Final Four.
“We’ve dreamt about this moment since exactly this time last year,” said Amihere. “As soon as we lost we were like, `Man, I can’t wait for next year this time.’ So, this has been a long process, but we’re finally here. So, I’m just excited.”
Last year’s Final Four was played at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Tex., with less than 20-per-cent capacity allowed in the venue. This year, the Final Four is being held at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., with no restrictions on capacity.
“We’re definitely really excited to be back (in the Final Four),” Jerome told The Canadian Press. “I think our team is looking forward to more of a normal Final Four with fans and stuff like that. Although we had fans last year, it felt very different because of COVID.”
Of the four Canadians involved, only one of them can win the national championship, but, in a sense, Jerome says they’ve all already won in a different way.
“It’s just really exciting to see the development of Canada Basketball,” Jerome said. “It’s super exciting for all the young players, I think it’s really great for young players to be able to see all these Canadians having success in the NCAA.
“I’m super happy for them and for Canada Basketball.”
The national championship game will played Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.