TORONTO — Moments after making history Monday night, Canada's finest women's basketball players stood arm in arm on the medal podium, belting out O Canada with all their might.
"Could you guys hear us?" Shona Thorburn asked reporters, her faced stretched in a wide smile.
All of Canada did.
Led by Kia Nurse, a 19-year-old superstar in the making, and playing their first significant tournament on home turf in two decades, the Canadians roared to an 81-73 victory over the United States for their first-ever Pan American Games gold medal.
"We were so loud," Thorburn said of the national anthem — in which they were joined by a delirious crowd of 3,300 at Ryerson University's Mattamy Athletic Centre. "We belted that. Pride. Emotion. Hard work pays off and honestly that's what happened tonight."
Nurse, whose name was trending on Twitter in Toronto, poured in 33 points, while Natalie Achonwa of Guelph, Ont., playing her first tournament with Canada since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee in the spring of 2014, added 13.
Tamara Tatham of Brampton, Ont., chipped in with 10 points for the Canadians, whose depth and attention to defence made them the class of the tournament. They reeled off five wins in five nights — Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, and finally the United States.
And by the time the final buzzer sounded Monday night, a team that has long played in the shadows of more popular Canadian teams — such as women's soccer — had won more than a few hearts.
"Any time you get the opportunity to play at home in a meaningful game at an event like this, it can't do anything but help the exposure and the profile of our program and our team and our players," said coach Lisa Thomaidis. "Hopefully Canada got to see what we're all about and the type of character and athletes that represent Canada and give so much for their country."
The Canadians led by as many as 17 points and took an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter.
The Americans trailed just 78-73 with 18 seconds to play, but a free throw by Achonwa, and two by Nurse with seven seconds left — with the crowd chanting "M-V-P!" — sealed Canada's victory.
Nurse was simply spectacular in her first tournament since helping the Connecticut Huskies to an NCAA title. Her big-game poise showed, and she credited her athletic family: her brother Darnell is Edmonton Oilers prospect, her uncle is Donovan McNabb, her dad Richard played for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and mom Cathy played basketball at McMaster University.
"Probably just from the competitive family that I have, just being raised in such a competitive way and getting to watch my brother do all those crazy things for himself and you know you get to try and one-up him . . . it's a good feeling," she said, laughing.
Nurse added six rebounds, three assists, a pair of steals and a block. And when she went down in a massive collision with just under four minutes left, and was helped off the court, the crowd saluted her rock-solid performance with a standing ovation.
"Speechless. Wow," Thorburn said, of her young teammate. "At shootaround I was like 'She's really amped up, might have to bring her down a little.' She can stay like that all day if that's how she's going to play every night."
The gold medal was a long time coming for Canada's veterans such as Thorburn, Lizanne Murphy of Beaconsfield, Que., and Kim Gaucher of Mission, B.C., who opted to stick around after the London Olympics — the team's first Olympic appearance in 12 years.
"I might break into tears," Murphy said. "We're so happy, man. The first step in our summer. This is what we talked about last year when we knew how the summer was going to be. I can’t even describe the feeling."
"I said to Kia, because she's one of the youngest on the team: 'You know I started playing for Canada Basketball when I was 14,'" added Thorburn, a Hamilton native. "I'm turning 33 and I've never had a gold medal around my neck."
Canada had never won a Pan Am basketball gold, on either the men's or women's side. The women's best result was a silver at the 1999 Games in Winnipeg.
They now head to Edmonton for the second part of their two-part summer. The FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament tips off Aug. 9. Canada has to win the tournament to earn an automatic berth, but the Americans have already booked their spot in Rio and won't be there.
"Every win you can get against quality opponents certainly builds confidence," Thomaidis said. "Every time you get a chance to play against different personnel, different systems, teams that press and trap, it's great for those young guards (Nurse, Nirra Fields and Miah-Marie Langlois) to get that experience. We couldn’t ask for anything more as preparation heading into Edmonton."
The Americans — including Nurse's UConn teammates Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson — dominated a frazzled-looking Canadian squad in the first quarter, taking a 23-13 lead into the second.
But the Canadians settled down in the second, took a 31-30 lead — their first of the game — with just under four minutes left in the first half.
The game was tied 36-36 at halftime, but Canada poured it on in the third, stretching its advantage to 60-43 before taking a 62-51 lead into the fourth.
The men's Pan Am tournament, meanwhile, tips off on Tuesday.
By Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press