Basketball

Japan's Asian hoop champs return home

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

One day after they became the first Japanese team to clinch a berth at next summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the players and staff of Japan’s women’s basketball team made a triumphant return home with the gold medals around their necks on Sunday evening.

“We set ourself the goal of earning a berth at Rio and winning the title for the second straight time, entering the tournament,” said head coach Tomohide Utsumi, at a hotel near Narita international airport on Sunday.

Utsumi’s Hayabusa Japan squad defeated China 85-50 in Saturday’s final to capture the FIBA Asia Women’s Championship in Wuhan, China, and a ticket to the Olympics.

“None of these players have experienced the Olympics. So this is a dream come true for them. Now the dream has changed to being their goal.”

Center Ramu Tokashiki, who was named tournament MVP for the second consecutive time, flew directly from China back to the United States to resume playing for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm.

Japan missed the last two Olympics but captured its first Asia Championship title in 43 years at the 2013 edition in Thailand.

Utsumi said that the team that played at the 2013 tourney was more mature, but the 2015 squad, featuring several young rising stars like point guard Rui Machida and Sanae Motokawa, was more vigorous.

The 56-year-old, who led Japan to a 10th-place finish at the 2004 Athens Games, added that the team’s dominant performance in the title game against the host fully expressed that characteristic.

“My job was over after five minutes of the game,” Utsumi joked. “They really played in the way they wanted to.”

Japan captain Asami Yoshida described herself as “a tongue-tied person” and was reluctant to speak to the media despite the team’s achievement the previous night. But the veteran star point guard of the WJBL said she would be happy if people in Japan got to know how much fun the sport was through the team’s performance at the Asia Championship.

“I was very happy to play on this team, as point guard and captain,” said Yoshida, who led the tournament with an average 5.1 assists per game and made the all-tournament team. “Hopefully, we can continue to put up this type of performance.”

Yoshida said that the Japanese team started the tournament a little shakily, because of the pressure of knowing that only the gold medal-winning team would earn a ticket to Rio. But she added that the players stayed patient, especially in defense, and managed to win games, which built confidence as the tournament progressed.

The Japanese team began its preparation a little late because of FIBA’s suspension of the Japan Basketball Association, which was officially lifted in early August. But the team still managed to find other countries, such as New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan, to play exhibitions against.

Utsumi said that when his team played warm-up games against Taiwan in Tokyo in the middle of last month, he thought his players might do something special. His sixth sense was correct after all.

Yet the Japanese team will have to be ready for a much tougher challenge. It was ousted from the FIBA World Championship for Women in Turkey after it went 0-3 in the group stage (14th place) last year.

JBA president Saburo Kawabuchi, who helped get the ban on the sport’s national governing body lifted as co-chairman of the Japan 2024 Task Force, insisted that the team should have a high goal for the Olympics in Brazil.

“Looking back to the past doesn’t lead to anything. We need to think of how we will be going forward,” Kawabuchi said. “I told the team not to set its sights on making it to the final eight or final six, but to go for a medal.”