Basketball

Hachimura lifts Meisei High to Winter Cup three-peat

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

High school phenom Rui Hachimura racked up 34 points, 19 rebounds and three blocks to lead Meisei High School to its third consecutive championship in the All-Japan High School Tournament with a 78-73 win over Tsuchiura Nihon University High School in the boys’ final on Tuesday.

It was the fourth-ever Winter Cup title for Meisei.

Meisei, of Miyagi Prefecture, is the first boys team to complete a three-peat since Rakunan High School between 2006 and 2008.

Meisei was held by Tsuchiura Nihon University High’s defense and entered the fourth quarter trailing 57-54. But the Sendai team prevailed in the final period , led by Hachimura and guard Yuto Nomi, to take the lead and held on for the win.

Nomi, who nearly ensured the victory with a layup with 1:38 left, followed Hachimura with 22 points. Guard Yuki Mikami hit five 3-pointers for 15 points.

Meisei coach Hisao Sato said that winning a championship cannot be achieved just with physical ability and techniques, but also requires strong mentality. And his team was able to do that in the championship game.

“We talked about our defensive and offensive strategies during our morning meeting,” Sato said. “But I told our players to give everything they’ve got so you won’t have any unfinished business afterward.

“We had to overcome some deficits, but we kept playing patiently and waiting for our time. And it worked in our favor.”

Nomi said that Meisei knew it was going to be a tough battle, but it paid off as the team endured difficult moments, in which it didn’t make shots, earlier in the contest.

“Coach told us to not hesitate (and) attack the basket, and we did,” Nomi said. “And it feels great that we took the pace of the game in the end.”

Hachimura, 17, said that his team never got rattled even when Tsuchiura Nihon University High had the momentum, because it has reigned at this arena in the annual tournament.

“I told my teammates, ‘This is our court,’ ” Hachimura said. “We are the only team that’s not gotten beaten here in the last three years.”

For Tsuchiura Nihon University High, forward Yoshiyuki Matsuwaki nailed eight 3s and scored 30 points.

To observe the final countdown of Japan high school basketball’s biggest tournament, a full-house crowd of about 9,000 filled the arena.

Many of them presumably decided to make the visit to see Hachimura play and his Meisei team complete its third straight championship.

“I was conscious of winning it for the third consecutive year a little bit,” said the senior Hachimura, who’s committed to play at NCAA Division I program Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. “I’m excited and relieved to do it today.”

As his numbers spoke for itself, Hachimura, who came through on both sides of ball, was clearly the major reason to give Meisei another Winter Cup title.

Hachimura has been a core player since his first year in high school, but this year he exhibited strong leadership as well.

“I thought that our team wasn’t playing well earlier,” he said, “but as the team’s ace, I tried to calm my teammates down and I’m glad I was able to do that.”

Despite the 198-cm forward’s performance that looked to be terrific, Sato was a bit harsh on Hachimura for usually not playing to the best of his exceptional ability.

“Today, in this championship stage, Hachimura lived up to our expectations,” Sato said. “But he usually shows 50 to 60 percent of his potential.”

Hachimura responded with a bitter smile after hearing that, disagreeing with his coach.

Instead, Hachimura put it this way: He elevates his performance when games are on the line, and that’s actually one of the biggest things he’s learned in high school.

“I was horrible in junior high in terms of controlling my energy during games,” Hachimura said. “But I’ve really grown in the three years at Meisei.”

Hachimura and Meisei still have the All-Japan Championship, which has teams from all levels, in January to play. But the Winter Cup was the final high school tourney for Hachimura.

Hachimura still needs to academically qualify to get into Gonzaga, and he’s been working hard on it.

He joked that studying isn’t fun, but can keep pushing himself with the big objective of playing basketball in the United States.

“Because I’ve had so much fun for playing sports, I’ve not studied much,” Hachimura said. “So I want to study hard. When I study, thinking this is for my future, for my basketball career, I can do it.”

Hachimura, a dominant inside player in Japan, is also working on his outside skills for the sake of his move to America.

He said that he’s played a lot of one-on-one against smaller teammates to polish his techniques, including shooting, dribbling and passing.

“I still have a long way to go,” Hachimura said. “But I want to practice so I will be a player that can pass, shoot and everything.”