The lead-up to the Olympic final was slightly overshadowed by the public airing of grievances between American player Wendy Brown (Saber-toothed Tiger, G) and British superstar D’Angelo MacQuilkin (Lion, G), the feline couple reportedly breaking up on Friday after Great Britain’s thunderous loss against South Korea. This reportedly affected mood in Team US’ camp, several players getting quite incensed by the distraction as pretty much every sports reporter huddled out of their training grounds to get the latest news on the break-up of one of the longest-running and most publicized FBA relationships.
For the United States, the mood was pretty much “win or else”, no one willing to settle for silver after a decidedly lackluster campaign. With the amount of star power on Angus MacPherson’s (Highland Bull) team, small wins against South Korea and Japan weren’t deemed enough of an achievement and raised heavy questioning on the entire expedition. On the contrary, the young Canadian team received rave reviews – the entire group finding their footing after their 3-point win on Cameroon, François Martineau (Golden Retriever, G) and Kevin Malka (Giant Armadillo, F) coming through as the cornerstones of the team with veteran Yves Carbonneau (Arctic Fox, G/F) providing some much needed experience to a squad that shared just three twelfths with the one that spectacularly lost on the bronze medal in 2016.
Ever since the first possession, the United States were hell bent in proving Canada they had no desire of abdicating from their throne – opening to an easy slasher from Leon Delmont (Cougar, G) and a three-pointer from Narkissa Kassius (Ringtail Lemur, G), the Canadians being forced to play catch-up from the very first second. Neo Tomasi (Leopard) instructed his team to focus on guarding the Americans’ backcourt, Martineau gluing himself to Kassius’ back and preventing her from getting as many scoring opportunities as she had against South Korea. Their main offensive weapon became Tyrone Gale (Horse, G), the Pittsburgh Keystones’ young stallion galloping through the court and sinking shot after shot – Delmont unable to mount a strong opposition on the equine, the cougar focusing mostly on assisting Terry O’Toole (Irish Wolfhound, F/G) and Scoonie Barrett (Otter, F/C) as they racked up points from first and second chance opportunities. At the end of the 1st quarter USA was ahead by 8 points, 28 to 20.
The 2nd quarter began on similar lines to the previous one, Canada struggling to stay in the game as the United States relied on their main contributors’ superior skills. As soon as the reserves took the court, though, the gap got visibly reduced – Lauren Fash (Five-lined Skink, G/F) giving a welcomed energy boost from the bench, the female reptile taking over at shooting guard and making the most of manifold opportunities from the charity stripe. It was late in the quarter when tragedy struck – Lance Wildfyre (Rabbit, G) remaining on the ground after colliding under the rim with Tay Delgado (Mink, G), the mink desperately trying to block the lapine as he led an unguarded fast break. The contact with Delgado projected Wildfyre forward, severely straining his neck as he fell on his left shoulder – the medical assistance lasting a few minutes as the unlucky guard was taken off the court on a stretcher, his Olympic final clearly over. The injury thwarted USA’s momentum and propelled the Canadians, ending the first half on a strong note and taking the lead with a minute to play – the score 52-47 in the latter’s favor as the players filed into the tunnel.
MacPherson’s instructions to his players to take control of the game by exploiting the mismatch between Barrett and Zack Tate (Zorilla, C) against Natalie Bellemare (Atlantic Puffin, C/F) yielded some results as the United States were quick to mend the deficit, although the Kahunas’ frontcourt was decidedly sluggish on offense – both players having gotten to Japan in non-optimal condition after a long, brutal season that forced Hawaii to an excruciating loss in the 2020 FBA Finals. It fell to Kassius and O’Toole to spearhead the American offense, the buff canine turning up the heat midway through the quarter as he won the direct comparison with Yves Carbonneau – the arctic fox looking sluggish as he ended the game with just 5 points to his name. At the end of the third quarter US was up by eight, 88 to 80, and seemed to have the upper hand going into the final stretch.
What followed can only be described as a Canadian thunderstorm, as Gale and Martineau pummeled the American defense with three straight three-pointers in the first two minutes of the last quarter – the horse an uncatchable blur as he dashed through the American defenders, both Barrett and Tate often late in their double-teaming as he drove through the post again and again. Not expecting such a forceful push from the Road Warriors, USA quickly found themselves trying to catch up – Barrett and Tate missing several opportunities on offense, while Kassius had to relent her defense on the Canadian frontcourt as she quickly went into foul trouble. Another three pointer from Edwin Griega (Canada Goose, F) brought Canada up by 5 with less than two minutes on the clock, forcing MacPherson to call a late timeout in order to reassess their next play.
Kassius spent a long time setting up the play, trying to reach Tate for an easy two – but Martineau was quick in putting his paw between the lemur and the zorilla, grabbing the ball and setting a fast break which Gale concluded with a windmill dunk. The entire stadium exploded in a massive cheer, enough for the Americans to mess up the next play and allow Canada to pull further ahead as the golden retriever went for two free throws. A few moments later, the referee’s whistle marked Canada’s gold medal win – Tomasi’s team edging the United States by 9 points in a 110-101 win.
The medal ceremony was a somber affair for the Americans, many players looking on the verge of tears as they accepted their silver medals from the IFOC representative, former Soviet fencer Valeriya Nikitina (Snow Leopard). Tyrone Gale was elected PotG – the horse ending the game with 25 points and 8 assists to his name – while François Martineau was elected Best Player of the Tournament, the prize being awarded to the canine by a commission of nine members of the IFBA and IFOC.
“It’s a dream coming true,” Martineau commented to our microphones shortly after the medal ceremony. “Every single day, we believed we could fight our way to the end and even defeat the reigning Olympic champions. We had the strongest drive of any team in this tournament, and we proved it from the first game to the last.”
“I’m sorry for our American friends…” said Kevin Malka, the giant pangolin displaying his usual modesty as he clutched his gold medal between his massive paws, “…but this victory couldn’t come at a better time for our team. I’m proud of representing the Maple Leaf on the biggest stage there is and I’m freakin’ glad to come home with this around my neck. This is for every kid who felt out of place and found his way out through his passion for sports. Work as hard as you can, believe in yourself and you’ll reap the rewards.”
-A. Villaraigosa, FurryOlympics.com