• Kyodo

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The Japan women’s team got off to an excellent start in the Olympic basketball tournament, riding tenacious defense to a victory over a big, talented Belarus team 77-73 on Saturday.

Led by 176-cm small forward Mika Kurihara’s team-high 20 points on 7-for-11 shooting, including 60 percent clip from 3-point range (6-for-10), Two-time defending Asian champion Japan closed out a tight game in the fourth quarter by getting a couple of key defensive stops — something its opponent could not manage.

“I tried not to think of this as the Olympics,” Kurihara said. “I wasn’t hitting any of (my 3- pointers) in practice. (But) I was able to relax and enjoy myself and stay loose and shoot.”

Belarus trailed 67-61 at halftime.

Japan earned the win despite being dominated on the boards, with Belarus finishing with a 44-26 advantage in rebounds.

But Japan, guided by coach Tomohide Utsumi, used tenacious on-ball pressure to force the world’s No. 10-ranked team into 17 turnovers.

On the other side of the ball, Japan was able to spread the offensive wealth, finishing with 23 assists — eight from floor general and captain Asami Yoshida, who almost had a triple-double, adding eight points and nine rebounds — while keeping its own turnovers down to a nine. Rui Machida and Sanae Motokawa dished out six and five assists, respectively.

Japan’s second-highest scorer was forward Ramu Tokashiki, who is in her second year with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, and finished with 16 points. Maki Takada chipped in with 12 points.

Despite shooting poorly, United States-born Lindsey Harding had a good all-around night for Belarus, scoring 12 points (4-for-13), grabbing eight boards and dishing out five assists.

Of the other teams in Japan’s group on Saturday, France dominated Turkey 55-39 and medal favorite Australia broke local hearts with an 84-66 win over Brazil.

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