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Rio de Janeiro

After playing more than 200 games during her 16 years in the national program, Kim Smith Gaucher is a Canadian women's basketball historian.

She even remembers what happened two weeks ago.

Canada's 81-51 loss to the USA in the Olympic tournament Friday required some perspective that only an exhibition embarrassment could provide. Losing by 30 points represented quantifiable improvement, considering the Canadians trailed by 40 after three quarters of that game in Bridgeport, Conn.

The subjective judgment of Canada also got better in this episode. The players "weren't afraid," Gaucher said. "I mean, if you watched our game in Connecticut, that wasn't the case."

The former University of Utah star continued, "With that being said, there's still a lot we can improve upon. We still lost by 30."

Yeah, that's the reality of the USA's domination of Olympic women's basketball, with a 45-game winning streak. Just staying close for a while is an achievement for any opponent. Canada accomplished something by trailing 18-17 early in the second quarter, but the Americans' defense took hold after that. The USA led by 14 points at halftime and by 24 after three quarters.

From a Canadian perspective, that's a lot better than the 65-25 deficit after 30 minutes last month. So Canada has made progress from Bridgeport to Rio, and the truth is that comparing themselves to the Americans is healthy only in the sense that anything the Canadians do well against them can help the team prepare to play against more reasonable opposition.

Gaucher labeled Friday's exercise "a great game to practice" as Canada faces a pivotal contest Sunday vs. Spain. With a victory, the Canadians will finish second in Group B and launch themselves into the quarterfinals with a shot at the country's first medal in women's basketball.

This team already has won three games for the first time in an Olympics. Even when the Canadians finished fourth in a six-team tournament in 1984, they won only twice.

Gaucher, who posted five points and five rebounds Friday, and former Ute teammate Shona Thorburn have helped Canada's program grow over the last decade to a point where medaling in Rio is realistic. That's a big jump from the days when just qualifying for the Games was a breakthrough, and that's why the Canadians were not especially discouraged about what the USA did to them Friday.

Canada coach Lisa Thomaidis was impressed by her team's competitiveness against an opponent that's "very intimidating," she said. "If you let that get to you, you beat yourself before you step onto the court."

The team's three-ex Utes, counting Michelle Plouffe, all appeared together for a stretch of the third quarter when Canada played the USA evenly. OK, it was 2-2, but Thomaidis clearly should have stuck with that lineup.

Otherwise, the Americans were overwhelming over the last three quarters. USA coach Geno Auriemma accurately observed, "Every team's starting five is really good in this tournament," and his advantage is having seven world-class players coming off the bench.

Even with Friday's incremental improvement, nothing suggests that Canada could compete with the USA for 40 minutes in the gold medal contest. Yet considering their inauspicious history in the Games, that's a problem the Canadians absolutely would love to have.

Twitter: @tribkurt