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Oh, Canada! The rise of Canadian basketball

This past summer during the Pan Am Games and Fiba Americas, there was a salvo sent by Canada, as they won the Gold Medal. Their salvo was powerful: "we have arrived, we have risen -- and we are here to stay."

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Edmonton -- As the clock ticked down, 3...2...1... the fans' chants echoed louder, "Rio! Rio! Rio!"

The Edmonton, Alberta gym turned into a concert of Canadian pride: A team that was knocked out of the quarterfinals at the 2012 London Olympic Games, now has a chance to redeem themselves.

"The last two minutes [of the game] felt like they took 15 minutes," said Michelle Plouffe, a six-year veteran. "We were just waiting for the buzzer to sound to run into center court and celebrate."

As Canadian basketball heads into an exciting new era with so much hope and promise for the young batch of talent on the men's side making a splash in the NBA, such as Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson and Jamal Murray, it's the senior women's national team that has taken the lead internationally.

The Canadian women's basketball team is on the rise.

And they're on their way to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

"This summer was different," said Natalie Achonwa, the 2015 WNBA rookie star. "It was special because we got to play two tournaments at home. It's been years coming."

The team began their summer at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games, upsetting team USA in the finals and making history by being the first Canadian team to win a gold medal at a home Pan Am event.

"This is a special group of women. You can see when they play and the way they sing the National Anthem, they do it with such pride. They wear it with a smile, and they have fun, and they enjoy each other. I'd say the magic is in how much they enjoy each other's company while they play together." said Michele O'Keefe, President and CEO of Canada Basketball.

Then, just three weeks later, they dominated all opponents at the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship in Edmonton, Alberta, winning their second gold of the summer over Cuba 82-66 and qualifying for Rio.

"Everyone was excited. We had packed houses, and it was incredible," said Achonwa. "People were standing up all game because there were no seats. It felt like family; the support was genuine. It's a great feeling."

This was just the second time Canada has won the FIBA Americas tournament, previously winning it in 1995 in Hamilton, Ontario. The team came fifth at the last tournament, just barely qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Games.

And it's no surprise that the chemistry the team shares is strong. Many veterans, such as Kim Gaucher, Tamara Tatham, and Shona Thorburn have been representing Canada for over a decade. However, the main reason that Canada has earned its name as a medal contender in Rio next summer is the fact that they are a battle-hardened, veteran group: most of the team played in the Olympics in 2012, with a few new additions that accent the veterans perfectly.

"We've had players that have put in so much time and effort, they've kind of spent their lives building this program," said Plouffe. "They've been there for the lowest of the lows, and now they're able to help build the program they've stuck with it."

But it's not only veterans who make this group truly exceptional. Young players like, Kia Nurse and Miah-Marie Langlois, both play significant roles on the team. Nurse, the 19-year-old University of Connecticut point guard, was the leading scorer for the team in both tournaments over the summer: scoring 33 points in the Gold Medal matchup against USA and 14 in the Finals against Cuba.

"There were great veterans who were still on the team and then we had a young crew start to come in and crack the lineup," said O'Keefe.

The mix of veterans and rookies will help the Senior Women's National Team remain dominant and continue to grow. They're good now, but they'll likely become even better.

"In the next couple years, when players start to retire, there shouldn't be a drop-off because the development is so good," said Achonwa, of the team whose average age is just 25-years-old.

"Upward momentum," Anchonwa continued. "It's competitive to make the Senior National Team. The earlier years, we would get invited, and that was pretty much the team. And now, we're having to cut people, and you really have to fight to make the team, and that just shows the development in our elite programs from the cadette team on up."

The Cadette Women's National Team, aged 16 and under, is raising talented athletes to bring into the senior program. This summer they made history at the 2015 FIBA Americas by beating Brazil in overtime and winning the nation's first gold medal in that FIBA Americas age group.

"This summer especially is opening up a lot of doors for our women's teams," said Plouffe, who's twin sister is also on the national team. "I know a couple of summers ago, no one even knew we had a women's basketball team. Now we're opening people's eyes to the opportunity that we have."

At the 2012 Olympic Games, the women finished in eighth place, better than their tenth place finish in 2000. In the last five Olympic Games, they haven't finished better than fourth place.

It was evident that something needed to change.

And after the 2012 London Olympic Games, then head coach, Alison McNeil retired and ended her long coaching career with the Senior Women's Basketball Team.

"We did a worldwide search for a new head coach, and we realized that our best candidate was homegrown in Lisa Thomaidis," said O'Keefe, of the long-time assistant coach of the national team. "Lisa was the right person for our next revolution, our next phase."

And almost instantaneously, the team began to form into the powerhouse that was showcased in the summer of 2015.

"The 2014 world championships were one of those tournaments where we were the talk of the tournament," said O'Keefe. "People loved their style of play; they loved the new coaching style. They were upbeat and played with a lot of speed and heart. And the team finished fifth which I think was their best results in a long time."

And that brought them one step closer to their ultimate goal.