Sunflowers claim WJBL three-peat

by Kaz Nagatsuka

WJBL rookie sensation Ramu Tokashiki had a tremendous game on both offense and defense and point guard Asami Yoshida chipped in as the two-time defending champion JX Sunflowers edged the Fujitsu RedWave 73-68 in the final of the All-Japan Championship at Yoyogi National Gymnasium on Sunday afternoon.

With the victory, the Sunflowers grabbed the Empress’ Cup for the third consecutive year.

The 191-cm Tokashiki led the game with 21 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks, while Yoshida followed with 19 points, going 3-for-3 from outside the 3-point arc, and 12 assists.

“I’m very relieved,” JX head coach Tomohide Utsumi said after the game. “People would say that we were destined to win another title. But it wasn’t easy to win today’s ballgame at all. Our players were patient and made plays when we needed them most.”

Both teams played their part in a nail-biting, seesaw contest in which the lead switched for 10 times, in front of a crowd of 3,150. The Sunflowers held a seven-point lead three times in the second half, but Fujitsu would not let them extend their lead and reeled them in every time.

Yet the Sunflowers came up strong when it mattered. With less than a minute remaining in final quarter, Tokashiki made a layup to widen the lead to three, and Yoshida sank two free throws, which were given after her own steal, to seal the win with 10 seconds to go.

Having won 16 games in a row in the Women’s Japan Basketball League regular season, JX entered the 32-team tournament as the favorite for the Empress’ Cup. It actually got the job done.

JX’s Yuko Oga, however, said that the feat wasn’t achieved as easily as it looked. She explained that the team struggled to maintain its motivation level entering the 77th annual tournament.

“We certainly wanted to complete the three-peat,” said the former WNBA player, who had 12 points. “We’d won 16 in a row and didn’t think the game would be this tough.

“When we won the first, we wanted to go for another title the next year. But when we won the second, we didn’t really know how to find the motivation. It’s a shame that we couldn’t have been in the best condition.”

Nineteen-year-old Tokashiki said: “I was nervous entering the tournament. But my teammates supported me and I was able to play better in the end.”

For the RedWave, Yoko Nagi scored 19 points and first-year player Megumi Shinohara had 17 points and five steals.

“Although we lost, we played our ball for the entire 40 minutes,” Fujitsu head coach Akemi Okazato said. “You’re never satisfied after a loss. But we didn’t play cowardly, so we’ll keep our heads up and try to reach a higher level.”

After the game, Oga, Yoshida, Tokashiki, Shinohara and Nagi were selected for the all-tournament team.