Sunflowers capture fourth-straight Empress’ Cup


Staff Writer

The JX Sunflowers once again proved that they are the queens of the floor, giving their opponent Denso Iris a tough lesson.

The Sunflowers overwhelmed Denso in every phase of the game as they grabbed their fourth-straight Empress’ Cup with a 78-52 win in the 78th All-Japan Championship final at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 on Sunday afternoon.

It was the second “four-peat” for the Sunflowers, who previously achieved the feat between 2001 and 2004 (then as the Japan Energy Sunflowers). Nichibo Hirano holds the record with five consecutive championships from 1965.

“Our players were really focused from the beginning to the end on such a big stage like this today,” JX head coach Tomohide Utsumi said after the game.

Champions often get off to a slow start, but that wasn’t the case for JX. It took a 27-12 lead at the end of the first quarter and made it 44-22 at halftime.

The Iris showed some resistance, cutting the deficit — which was at one point as big as 33 points — to 24 with Misaki Onuma’s nine-point effort in the final quarter. But the rally was obviously too late.

“We felt like there was a big wall to overcome in today’s final,” said Hirofumi Kojima, head coach of the Iris, who made their first final appearance in the All-Japan Championship. “To be quite honest, we aren’t good enough to win the whole tournament yet.”

Guard Yuko Oga led the game with 20 points on 9-for-13 shooting, and veteran Rika Tanaka followed with 15 for the Sunflowers. Onuma and Kumiko Oba had 13 points apiece for Denso.

Though 20 points may not sound too impressive, it was clearly ace guard Oga who gave the Sunflowers a boost, particularly early in the game. The former WNBA player scored the game’s first three baskets, and notched 18 points by the end of the first half.

“Denso was playing in its first final and we have some young players, so I thought both teams would enter the game with some nerves,” said Oga, who played for the Phoenix Mercury in 2008. “So I was looking to aggressively take shots rather than turn the ball over by passing it.”

Oga came back to the team for Saturday’s semifinal game after a monthlong absence from action with an ankle injury. She made sure she used the time away from the gymnasium to good effect.

“I thought it would be very important to return to the court with a good image of playing,” said Oga, the leading scorer in the FIBA 2010 Women’s World Championships in the Czech Republic. “So I watched a lot of videos, both my own and other teams, and even the NBA.

“Since I was watching basketball so much on videos, I didn’t feel like I was away from the game too much.”