• Kyodo


Iran topped Japan 68-63 to take the FIBA Asia Championship bronze medal on Saturday, beating Japan for the second time in the tournament and ensuring the reigning champion finished its title defense with a win.

Iran’s Mohammad Samad Nikkhah Bahrami was unstoppable in the rematch, finishing the game with 35 points, including eight 3-pointers made on 17 attempts. He was supported by center Hamad Ehadadi’s 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

Japan got good performances from Keijiro Matsui (18 points, five rebounds), Makoto Hiejima (15 points, four assists) and Takatoshi Furukawa (14 points),while Joji Takeuchi finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Japan started the game looking like it had not recovered from Friday night’s disappointing semifinal loss, falling behind 18-3 early.

What’s more, starting shooting guard Hiejima was forced to the bench with two fouls after less than two minutes on court. From there, he watched his team fall behind by 10 points, and by the end of the quarter Iran’s lead was 12.

Japan signaled it would not be run out of the tournament without a fight, however, putting together a 10-0 burst midway through the second period to cut Iran’s lead to four before drawing even closer to the end the half just two points behind, 31-29.

Japan’s fightback was all due to the shooting of Matsui, who dragged his team back into the game by scoring 15 first-half points, on 5-for-6 shooting from behind the 3-point arc.

In the third quarter, Hiejima stepped up, scoring at will from the mid-range on an assortment of pull-up jump shots, and by the end of the third he had 15 points and Japan was in the lead 48-44.

Like in the semifinal against the Philippines, it was its opponent’s 3-point shot that proved to be Japan’s downfall in the fourth quarter. Nikkhah Bahrami hit his eighth 3-pointer of the game with less than five minutes to go, adding to two earlier daggers by Sajjad Mashayekhi, shots that ended Japan’s hopes of a podium finish for the first time since 1997.

Takeuchi finished the tournament as Japan’s best all-around player, and making a claim to the title of one of the best players in Asia. His six double-doubles in nine games was equal most among all players. He led the tournament in per game defensive rebounds (8.9) and finished second in total rebound average (11.9). His scoring average (15.6 points per game) was 12th highest, and he shot 55.6 percent, the fourth-best accuracy in the tournament.

Hiejima provided an excellent one-two punch with Takeuchi. He had a wonderful tournament, staking his claim for a long-term starting role on the national team. The Aisin SeaHorses player ended the tournament as Japan’s leading scorer with an average of 15.9 ppg.

Japan’s fourth-place finish now gives it the great opportunity to play for one of the three final available places in the 2016 Rio Olympic tournament. But with world basketball powers like France, Serbia, Greece, Italy and Canada competing for the same slots, Japan’s path to Brazil will be uphill.

In Changsha, Japan was without the talented Kosuke Takeuchi, Joji’s twin brother, high-scoring wing Kosuke Kanamaru — who was a late withdrawal in China — as well as point guard Yuki Togashi, and young star of the future, Yuta Watanabe. Bringing these players into the squad will inject further talent, and will build on this fine result, ramping up to what has to be the end goal — a strong performance in Tokyo at the 2020 Olympics.

Tournament host China takes on the Philippines later on Saturday for the Asia title and automatic qualification for the Rio Games.

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