Japan tops Qatar, advances to FIBA Asia Cup final

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Entering the FIBA Asia Cup, Team Japan set a goal of advancing to the semifinals. Well, the last four is good, but at the same time it sounds like a compromising goal.

Why not the final two?

Despite struggling early on, the Japan men’s national basketball team clicked from the second period on, thanks to its young prospects’ outstanding performances, as it defeated Qatar 73-66 in the semifinals of the fourth FIBA Asia Cup at Ota City General Gymnasium on Friday night.

Japan, which finished runnerup in the third tourney (called Stankovic Cup back then) in 2010, will face Iran in Saturday’s final.

Forward Kosuke Takeuchi again guided Japan on both ends of the court with an 18-point, nine-rebound performance, and guard Takatoshi Furukawa and forward J.R. Sakuragi contributed 15 and 12 points, respectively.

“I feel so happy that we’ve reached the final now,” Takeuchi said. “Both teams played good defense and we had tough times scoring in the first half. But overall we took the momentum as we kept our cool throughout the game. So today’s win means so much to the Japanese team.”

Japan shot only 19 percent from the field in the first quarter and trailed 12-9 at the end of the period. But it came through from the second period on and extended its lead to as many as 14 points at the beginning of the final quarter.

Qatar rallied in the closing minutes, but its comeback fell short.

Collegiate guard Makoto Hiejima made some big baskets to give Hayabusa Japan a boost. The 22-year-old Aoyama Gakuin University student was 4-for-6 from inside the 3-point arc and scored 11 points.

“As the tournament wore on, I felt like I was getting a better touch, so I was just going to play as hard as I could today,” Hiejima said with a smile.

Japan head coach Kimikazu Suzuki said that he and his staff made extra efforts on scouting Qatar because the Middle East team’s coach is ex-Japan floor boss Thomas Wisman and he was quite familiar with his Friday opponent.

“Obviously, Tom knows about us more than any other coaches in this tournament,” Suzuki said. “Such as how our players play and how I would mange. So I thought I need to work real hard on scouting on them. I thought we wouldn’t be able to end the game on top otherwise.”

Wisman started former NBA player Clinton “Trey” Johnson III, who had 28 points in the quarterfinals against Lebanon on Thursday, but Japan defended him well, holding the guard to 10 points on 2-for-14 shooting.

Johnson didn’t play in Qatar’s first game against Japan on the first day of the group league.

“We succeeded in keeping No. 12 (Johnson) away from scoring very well,” Takeuchi said.

For Qatar, center Mohd Yousuf Mohmmed had 22 points and seven rebounds, followed by Erfan Ali Saeed, who had 15 points.

In Friday’s earlier semifinal, Iran cruised past the Philippines 77-60.

On Saturday, Japan and Iran will play for the second time in the tournament. Japan lost 71-65 in their first meeting in the group stage.

“We’ve come all the way here, but it’s not over yet. We lost to (Iran) in the preliminary round,” Suzuki said. “So we’ll play looking for revenge against them.”