• Kyodo

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

In the gold-medal game, China defeated the Philippines 78-67 as Guo Ailun led China with 19 points.

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

Japan got good performances from Keijiro Matsui (18 points, five rebounds), Makoto Hiejima (15 points, four assists) and Takatoshi Furukawa (14 points), but the team’s ever-reliable star Joji Takeuchi had a relatively quiet game, despite ending with a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double.

Japan started the game looking like it had not recovered from Friday night’s disappointing semifinal loss, falling behind 18-3 early. Japan started without its normal cohesion on offense, while Iran began with intensity and physicality, particularly on defense.

Japan was not helped by starting shooting guard Hiejima being 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 5-6 shooting from behind the 3-point line.

In the third quarter, Hiejima stepped up, scoring at will from 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 bombs 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-round 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 15.6 point average was 12th highest, and he shot 55.6 percent, the fourth best 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 for his national team. The Aishin Seahorses player ended the tournament as Japan’s leading scorer with an average of 15.9 per game.

Japan’s fourth-place finish now gives it a great opportunity to play for one of the three final available places in the Rio 2016 basketball 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.

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