DONGGUAN, China — Nick Nurse had said Canada would need to play extraordinary basketball to survive at the FIBA World Cup — missing most of its biggest stars, and playing in arguably the toughest group in the global tournament, nothing less would be good enough.
The overmatched Canadians played an extraordinary third quarter in their World Cup opener against Australia on Sunday, but the Aussies responded with an even better fourth. And now Canada faces a mammoth task to reach the second round after a 108-92 loss.
Khem Birch scored 18 points, while Cory Joseph added 16 to lead the 23rd-ranked Canadians, who roared back from a 17-point deficit in the third quarter only to fall apart in the fourth.
"We had some extraordinary moments tonight," Nurse said. "We've just got to stretch them out a little bit and go from there."
Now, likely nothing less than a victory over No. 7 Lithuania on Tuesday would get Canada to the next round. Lithuania clobbered 33rd-ranked Senegal 101-47 in Sunday's late game.
So, can the Canadian squad bounce back?
"I guess we are going to have to find out," Nurse said. "We don't really have a choice other than to learn what we can from this game and pick ourselves up and come out and play. For us, we would have probably thought we would have to win the first two (games) to have any chance — and obviously the third (against Senegal on Thursday).
"We were hoping to get this one tonight and we didn't so that puts us in a kind of must-win scenario for the next one."
Kevin Pangos chipped in with 14 points and eight assists for Canada.
Matthew Dellavedova scored three of his six three-pointers in the fourth quarter to lead No. 11 Australia with 24 points. Chris Goulding added 16, while Patty Mills had 15.
The World Cup game was the Canadians' first since the 2010 tournament in Turkey, where they went 0-5 and finished 22nd out of 24 teams.
The last time Canada won a World Cup game was 17 years ago almost to the day — a victory over Venezuela to finish 13th at the 2002 tournament in Indiana.
For 10 minutes on Sunday, Canada looked poised to break that drought. Trailing by as many as 17 points, the Canadians roared out of halftime with a 25-7 run, and clutched a one-point lead to start the fourth. Then they went ice cold. Andrew Bogut's floating jumper with 6:24 to play capped a 16-2 Boomers run and put the green and gold up by 13 points. A Joe Ingles three-pointer with about three minutes to play made it a 16-point Aussie advantage, and it was game over.
"The start wasn't very good and the end wasn't very good and I thought the middle was excellent," Nurse said. "We didn't seem to be catching any breaks with the ball bouncing our way early, and didn't shoot it especially well ... But we regrouped and put a heck of a third quarter together. Just had another bad stretch to start the fourth and then a really bad stretch in the fourth there where we just couldn't shut their water off."
Australia outscored Canada 28-6 over the first 8:44 of the fourth quarter — an ugly stretch that killed Canada's hopes, and surely had Canadian fans wistfully thinking of what might have been.
"This game is done, just got to flush it and go on," said a glum Joseph, speaking barely above a whisper.
In a summer that had the potential to usher in the country's golden age in basketball, Canada was expected to field a team stocked with NBA talent in China. But after Canada Basketball listed 17 NBA players on its camp invitation list, far fewer showed up as one by one the country's biggest stars opted out of national team duty.
As a country, Canada boasts the second-most players in the NBA behind the U.S.
But as a Canadian team? Joseph (Sacramento) and Birch (Orlando) are the only two here.
"Just can't dwell on this game. We've got to move on," Birch said after the loss. "We've got to play how we did in the third quarter from the beginning next game."
Had Kelly Olynyk not injured a knee in the team's exhibition opener versus Nigeria, Canada would have had three NBA players in China.
The Aussies, meanwhile, boasted five NBAers — Mills, Bogut, Ingles, Dellavedova, and Aron Baynes — and were just a week removed from shocking the U.S. in a four-point exhibition victory, the first loss by the Americans since 2006.
Australia took an early lead Sunday and Goulding's three-pointer at the buzzer sent the Aussies into the second quarter with a 29-20 advantage.
Australia would stretch its lead to 17 points late in the second , but a pair of quick buckets by Canada sliced the deficit to 12 points, and Canada went into the halftime break trailing 52-40.
The Canadians roared out of the break with an 11-0 run that sliced the Aussies' advantage to just a point, and when Pangos hit a three-pointer with 6:51 left in the third quarter, the shot from deep gave Canada its first lead of the game since its opening basket. Birch threw down an emphatic dunk as part of Canada's third-quarter burst, racing back down the court with his arms outstretched like an airplane.
Thomas Scrubb's three with 11 seconds left in the quarter sent Canada into the fourth with a 77-76 advantage.
Foul trouble plagued the Canadians from the opening tip — many of them drawn by Utah veteran Ingles. The Canadians were whistled for 12 fouls in the first half compared to four for Australia, and a fed-up Nurse picked up a technical foul early in the second quarter. Joseph had to take a seat with his third foul — a head-scratcher — soon after, when he tripped over Mitch Creek's outstretched leg.
"I've got no comment on those guys," Joseph said of the referees.
Sunday's crowd at a packed Dongguan Basketball Centre was pro-Australia, but the Raptors' presence was definitely felt. The in-game host interviewed a fan in a No. 2 Kawhi Leonard Raptors jersey, signing off with "We the North!" Other fans were spotted in Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam jerseys.
Only the top two teams in each group advance to the second round, while the bottom two teams are relegated to the classification side of the draw.
Seven teams from the World Cup earn automatic berths for the 2020 Olympics, while another 16 teams will play in second-chance qualifying tournaments next summer.