Friday, September 30 2022

The NCAA Final Four will feature a healthy helping of Canadian content when the women hit the hard court on Friday.

The four participating teams include Canadian basketball star Laeticia Amihere of Mississauga, Ont., South Carolina, Merissah Russell of Ottawa in Louisville, Alyssa Jerome of Toronto with Stanford and Aaliyah Edwards of Kingston, Ont., Connecticut .

Along with vying for the coveted U.S. college basketball championship, bragging rights are also on the line in a Canadian hoops group chat that includes good friends Amihere, Russell and Edwards.

Their normal sympathetic chatter has evolved into a light chirp as the trio edge closer to college basketball’s ultimate prize.

“There’s a bit of chatter, but at the end of the day, we’re all proud of ourselves for coming to the Final Four and getting this far,” Edwards said.

The three players say they will have no problem putting friendship on hold this weekend.

“We talk about it in the group chat,” Amihere said. “It’s ‘good luck’ until we play you, isn’t it? So we want you to give your best in every game, and then when we play you, it’ll all be business.”

Link to national team

The trio are 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 was an alternate.

Merissah Russell of Louisville, middle, represents Canada at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. (Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Jerome, a fifth-year senior, has worked and interacted with the other three but is not part of their social group.

The Amihere Gamecocks, who enter the weekend as the No. 1 ranked team in women’s college basketball, will face the Russell Cardinals in Friday’s opener.

Last year, South Carolina lost a heartbreaking 66-65 semifinal decision to Jerome’s Stanford team.

Stanford then defeated Arizona 54-53 to win the national championship.

Amihere knows the bitter taste of defeat that lingers in his mouth will only go away if the Gamecocks can take care of some unfinished business in the Final Four.

“We’ve been dreaming about this moment since exactly this time last year,” Amihere said. “As soon as we lost we were like, ‘Man, I can’t wait for next year this time. So, it’s 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, Texas, with less than 20% capacity allowed in the venue. This year, the Final Four is taking place at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota with no capacity restrictions.

“We are really happy to be back [in the Final Four]”, Jerome told The Canadian Press. “I think our team is looking forward to a more normal Final Four with fans and stuff like that. Although we had fans last year, it was very different because of COVID.”

Of the four Canadians involved, only one can win the national championship, but, in a sense, Jerome says they have all won in a different way.

“It’s really exciting to see the development of Canada Basketball,” said Jerome. “It’s super exciting for all the young players, I think it’s really great for the 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 is Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.

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