The Japan women’s basketball team gave world No. 2 Australia a huge fright before succumbing to an 84-73 loss to suffer a series sweep on Tuesday.
Japan, which was without star player Ramu Tokashiki for the three-game series, was crushed 80-41 and 81-55 in the opening two games but stunned the Australians by taking a 43-42 halftime lead in the finale at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.
Australia, led by 205-cm center Elizabeth Cambage, eventually pulled away in the fourth quarter, but not before Japan had done enough to suggest it will be a force to be reckoned with when the two teams meet again at the Rio Olympics this summer.
“After yesterday’s game we talked about the importance of starting well tonight, and we were able to do that,” said Japan head coach Tomohide Utsumi, whose team will play Australia in the first round in Rio on Aug. 1.
“The players are getting better physically, mentally and technically. They are taking a step up. Now they have to take another step up.”
Japan outrebounded Australia 41-34 despite giving up an average 8 cm in height, with Japan’s Maki Takada grabbing a game-high nine boards.
Takada also led Japan in scoring with 22 points, followed by Sanae Motokawa with 15 and Mika Kurihara with 13.
“We played well tonight but as a team we need to be able to make the important shots when we have the chance,” said Japan captain Asami Yoshida.
“These three games have been a good experience for us, and from now on we need to keep playing our Japanese style of basketball and work toward becoming competitive at the Olympics.”
Japan trailed 61-58 entering the fourth quarter, and cut the gap to only two points with four minutes left on the clock.
The hosts shot 7-for-29 from 3-point range, after going 0-for-25 in the opener in Niigata Prefecture and 4-for-24 in the second game in Tokyo.
“If we can do better with our 3-point shooting, then it can be a good weapon for Japan and we can aim for a medal in Rio,” said Yoshida. “We need to keep working on it. We’ve learned a lot from this series.”
Japan and Australia, which won the bronze medal in London four years ago, will also face host Brazil and three yet-to-be-decided qualifiers in Rio.
Cambage, the first women to dunk in an Olympic tournament, led Australia with 26 points, followed by Leilani Mitchell with 19 and Suzy Batkovic with 13.
“We expected a much tougher game tonight and that’s what we got,” said Australia head coach Brendan Joyce. “I’m sure everyone is proud of Japan tonight. They played very good basketball, much better defense.
“It was a very physical game and it was only decided in the last few minutes, so we had to work hard to get the win. Credit to Japan — they outrebounded us. Although they’re a small team, they are competitive.”