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Rio de Janeiro • The road from Canada to Rio via the University of Utah started with a field hockey player from just across the U.S.-Canadian border. Nearly 20 years later, the pipeline that former coach Elaine Elliott built is a major component of the Utes' women's basketball program.

In the Olympics, Utah is the UConn of Canada.

For the second straight Games, Ute alumni account for three of Canada's 12 players. As preliminary play continues Friday, the Canadians face the USA team powered by five current or former Connecticut players, plus coach Geno Auriemma.

Kim Smith Gaucher, Shona Thorburn and Michelle Plouffe rank among the top nine scorers in Ute history. They've lifted Canada's program to new heights in women's basketball after doing the same for Utah, where 1997 signee Amy Ewert became the first of about two dozen Canadians to arrive. At least one Canadian has played for Utah every year since, including three members of the 2016-17 team who spent the summer in Canada's development program.

The Utes' presence took hold across the country after Ewert, who impressed Elliott with her athletic ability in field hockey and soccer, enjoyed a successful basketball career at Utah. The Canadians have kept coming.

"I loved recruiting up there," said Elliott, whose last class of 2010 featured Plouffe.

Elliott laughed about perpetuating the stereotype of Canadians being too nice, but she found it to be true. Those players were unconcerned about "exterior things," she said, not worrying about brand-name schools or conferences.

Canadians have thrived at Utah, helping build a respected program — although there's only one UConn, with 11 national championships. Utah's biggest achievement came 10 years ago when Gaucher and Thorburn led the Utes to the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight, ending up a free throw away from the Final Four.

Gaucher, 32, is Canada's team captain, and the team's first Olympic contest last Saturday marked her 200th game in the national program. Thorburn, who turned 34 on Sunday, remains the team's emotional leader as a reserve point guard.

"It says so much they're still so important to that team," Elliott said.

Plouffe is a backup center who was attracted to Utah by her Olympic teammates' success: "I knew there was a great Canadian connection and obviously those two are the headliners of that, so it was really fun for me to keep that connection going. … We're sisters, and to be able to share that Utah [bond] is special."

Plouffe would play more for Canada if not for the emergence of her twin sister, Katherine, a former Marquette player.

Gaucher temporarily retired after the 2012 Olympics, coming back to Utah as a women's basketball staff member. She returned to pro basketball in France and committed to Canada's Olympic effort through 2016.

"I'm definitely happy that I've stuck around," she said.

So is Thorburn, who sustained a fractured fibula in the FIBA Americas tournament last summer when Canada qualified for the Olympics. She's playing with a steel plate in her leg and acknowledges trying to come back too soon in France this past season, but now feels stronger. And she's proud of how far Canada's program has come.

"We know what it was like when we had to fight like dogs just to score a bucket and we still have that mentality, and I think that's why we've been so successful over the last six years," she told the Edmonton Sun.

Gaucher and Thorburn took the Utes a long way in 2006, when Utah almost beat Maryland and advanced to the Final Four. Of Gaucher's 17 points, 16 came in just over five minutes. With a chance to put the Utes ahead, Thorburn missed her first free-throw attempt and made the second with 7.8 seconds left, forcing overtime in an eventual loss.

Because of Thorburn's healthy outlook, Elliott said, "The right person was at the line, for either outcome. Kim is such a perfectionist and expected so much, to her own detriment at times. Shona was so much the opposite. It just bounced off her shoulders."

Even with their different makeup, they have remained close friends, 15 years after enrolling together at Utah. They're driven to deliver Canada's first Olympic medal in women's basketball, and they have a shot. The team stands 3-0 and has clinched a quarterfinal berth, with preliminary games against the USA and Spain to come.

An upset Friday would be asking a lot, though. Canada beat the USA 81-73 in the Pan Am Games final in July 2015, but the American roster included strictly college players — and only two from UConn.

Twitter: @tribkurt —

Canada to Utah to Rio

Kim Smith Gaucher

Age • 32.

Hometown • Mission, British Columbia.

Utah distinctions • Only women's basketball player to have jersey (No. 4) retired; No. 1 scorer (2,281).

Pro career • First-round pick of WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs (2006); has played in Belgium, Spain and France.

Shona Thorburn

Age • 34.

Hometown • Hamilton, Ontario.

Utah distinctions • No. 1 in assists (689), No. 9 in scoring (1,735).

Pro career • First-round pick of WNBA's Minnesota Lynx (2006); has played in Spain and France.

Michelle Plouffe

Age • 23.

Hometown • Edmonton, Alberta.

Utah distinctions • No. 1 rebounder (1,171), No. 2 scorer (2,100).

Pro career • Second-round pick of WNBA's Seattle Storm (2014); two years in France.