Sunflowers end Yamanote’s win-filled season

by Kaz Nagatsuka

The weak can beat the strong.

The ongoing All-Japan Championship is an annual tournament featuring Women’s Japan Basketball League and JBL squads, as well as collegiate and club teams. And one of its charms is to see rare upsets by non-WJBL and non-JBL teams.

Sapporo Yamanote High School has been a great example this year. The Hokkaido team earned a spot in the tournament as the winner of December’s All-Japan High School Tournament (Winter Cup).

Indeed, as the lone high school team, Sapporo Yamanote was the most underrated team in the 32-team Women’s All-Japan Championship, also called the Emperor’s Cup. But it had grabbed the spotlight by recording a pair of upset wins, beating Yamagata University and Aichi Gakusen University to advance to the third round.

On Tuesday, Sapporo Yamanote’s triumphal journey came to an end as it fell 110-73 to the reigning champion JX Sunflowers. Before the more experienced and bigger Sunflowers, Sapporo Yamanote couldn’t penetrate into the lane, struggled to grab rebounds and had several shots blocked. Ace scorer Moeko Nagaoka, who racked up 50 points in the Winter Cup final, was held to 13 points.

As captain Rui Machida said after the game, the Hokkaido high school was almost completely overwhelmed in all aspects by JX.

But still, the high school girls were the heroines of the day. The reporters assembled in the mixed zone, trying to get their reactions.

“We fortunately got to play with collegiate teams. We usually don’t play with them at all,” Sapporo Yamanote coach Masamitsu Kamishima said at Yoyogi National Gymnasium. “The players certainly earned more confidence through this experience. We couldn’t have hoped for any better than this.”

Machida said that the team had a lot of jitters entering the game against the defending champion. But she added that it turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for her team.

The point guard, who had 14 points and six assists against JX, also said that it was blessing for her club to be able to see what it can do against top WJBL players.

“We scored more than we expected,” said Machida, who will play for the WJBL’s Fujitsu RedWave next season. “We thought this game was a challenge to play against a team that’s playing at a high level. It was rewarding that we could test our game.”

Sunflowers head coach Tomohide Utsumi praised the high school squad for its gutsy play and spirited determination.

“They chased rebounds and loose balls really hard,” Utsumi said. “They won the treble titles (Inter-High School Championships, National Athletic Championships and All-Japan Championships) this year and after seeing them today, that really makes sense.”

It wasn’t just Sapporo Yamanote which learned a lesson. JX guard and former WNBA player Yuko Oga said that the way Sapporo Yamanote’s girls played opened her eyes.

“They often tried to drive in the lane, attempting to get a basket. They did that, knowing we were taller,” said Oga, who had eight points and nine assists. “That’s what Japan basketball players need to do. You have to drive in even if you could get blocked.

“That’s my theme to play that way. The high schoolers certainly woke me up.”