Oka Gakuen captures back-to-back Winter Cup titles

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Oka Gakuen didn’t repeat its nearly miserable state of the previous day.

But it did repeat as champion.

The Nagoya school kept its cool in the significant phase of the final quarter and successfully grabbed its second straight Winter Cup trophy with a 79-69 victory over Gifu Girls in the girls final of the All-Japan High School Tournament on Saturday.

Guard and captain Ai Yamada scored a team-high 22 points and dished out nine assists while four teammates posted double-digit scoring efforts for Oka Gakuen, which completed its championship treble after winning the interscholastic meet and national athletic meet competitions this year.

“I’m extremely pleased about this because we’ve been aware of (winning the three titles) this year,” Oka Gakuen head coach Shinichi Inoue said after the game at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. “Sometimes you could win two, but winning the third one is difficult.”

Oka Gakuen advanced to the championship game after playing a thriller in Friday’s semifinals. It almost blew a 29-point lead in the final period against St. Catalina Girls, which closed the gap to three points in the closing minute.

Saturday’s contest was similar. Oka Gakuen got off to a good start and took a 45-27 lead into halftime. But Gifu Girls made a gutsy comeback from 20 points down and cut it to six with under eight minutes left in the game.

Yet this time, the Oka Gakuen players didn’t panic. They retrieved their rhythm on defense and eventually put themselves back in the safety zone again for the reminder of the game.

“After playing that kind of a game yesterday, we had to concentrate on how much we could attack the basket,” Yamada said. “We allowed the opponents to cut their deficit a little, but at the end of the day, we were able to keep attacking the basket throughout the game.”

One of the game’s attractions was the matchup of the centers between Oka Gakuen’s Evelyn Mawuli and Gifu Girls’ Senegalese player Yacine Lo.

Lo is 7-cm taller than Mawuli, who’s got Ghanaian parents, but Lo got into a foul trouble early and had to sit on the bench for the entire second quarter, which may have helped Oka Gakuen widen its lead.

Lo, a senior, individually outperformed Mawuli as she posted a game-high 28 points and four blocks, but it didn’t mean anything to her if her team exited the tournament as a loser. After the game was over, Lo kept her head down for a long time while her teammates consoled her.

Gifu Girls finished as the runner-up seven years ago, and it came up short again.

And for Mawuli, also a senior, the personal battle didn’t have much meaning, either. She said that she was careful not to push too hard in guarding Lo defensively, so she wouldn’t get into foul trouble.

“Had I fouled out, it would have gotten our team into a trouble,” said Mawuli, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds. “I knew I wouldn’t score much against Yacine today, but I was still focusing on defending Yacine.”

Mawuli, who is scheduled to join the Aisin AW Wings of the WJBL next year, humbly said that she still had much to learn as a basketball player and eventually wanted to represent the country.

“My biggest dream is to play in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo,” said Mawuli, who has Japanese citizenship.

In the girls third-place game, St. Catalina Girls defeated Showa Gakuin (Chiba) 89-82.

In the boys semifinals, former Japan under-16 and U-18 national team forward Yusei Sugiura racked up 33 points to lead Fukuoka University Ohori (Fukuoka) to its first final in the Winter Cup in 10 years with a 87-65 win over Tokyo’s Keihoku. In the other game, Meisei (Miyagi) center Rui Hachimura put up a monster game with 36 points and 13 rebounds to guide the Tohoku school back to its first title game in four years.

The boys final will tip off at noon on Sunday.