Sunflowers reign supreme in Empress’ Cup

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The JX-Eneos Sunflowers captured the Empress’ Cup, which, according to their veteran point guard Asami Yoshida, had always belonged to them.

A pair of Japan national team inside players, Yuka Mamiya and Ramu Tokashiki, scored 22 points and 16 point, respectively, to guide the Sunflowers to their first All-Japan Championship title in two years with a 69-61 victory over the Toyota Motors Antelopes in the women’s final on Sunday.

Last year’s final was the same matchup, but the winner was reverse. Toyota Motors snapped the Sunflowers’ championship streak in the tournament at four in the 2013 edition.

“We had such a disappointing All-Japan Championship last time,” said Yoshida, who said before this year’s tournament that the team would try to retrieve the title. “And it’s been a painful time since. But it was really a relief that we were able to get payback in today’s final.”

Yoshida, also a national team player, had 13 points and nine assists.

“I’m so relieved to win the championship,” said Tokashiki, who was named the MVP for Japan’s gold medal-winning feat in last fall’s FIBA Asia Championship in Thailand. “I had foul trouble personally, but it wound up being a good experience for me and I want to to take advantage of it in the league.”

For Toyota Motors, Maya Kawahara led the team with 17 points.

It was the 18th All-Japan title for the Sunflowers, who have been crowned as champs in the WJBL in the last five years and are in first place in the WJBL season with a 12-1 record. But for them, it’s not been as easy as it may have seemed this year.

One of the reasons was the departure of Yuko Oga, who signed with the Shanxi Xing Rui Flame of the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association before this season. The former WNBA guard had been a core part of the team both technically and mentally.

Also, since they have so many national team players and they had to be absent from the club, they lacked the time to practice with their full members.

But the Sunflowers club was experienced enough to still manage those situations.

“Everybody was thinking that way,” the team’s second-year head coach Kiyomi Sato said of the absence of Oga. “But to me, we started the season based on the idea that we wouldn’t have her. We just wanted to win with the members we had. So it didn’t matter whether we had Oga or not.”

And Sato added that the team has tuned up as the season progressed.

“We hadn’t been able to play how we wanted to,” he said. “But we’ve finally become like a team we wanted to be.”