Olympics / Summer Olympics / Basketball

Japan pushes mighty U.S. team before falling in rout

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Japan’s women’s basketball team pushed the United States before crumbling after halftime on the way to a 110-64 quarterfinal defeat at the Rio Games on Tuesday.

Japan trailed the U.S. — which is aiming for its sixth straight Olympic title — by only two points just minutes before halftime at Carioca Arena 1, but fell apart after the restart as the American stars imposed their authority.

“I hate losing even if we play a good game, but we were able to give everything we had tonight,” said power forward Ramu Tokashiki, who plays for the Seattle Storm in the WNBA and led Japan in scoring with 14 points.

“That’s my level and that’s Japan’s level. Sure I wanted to play a bit better and win the game, but if one team was going to beat us, I’m glad it was the U.S.”

Japan shot 50 percent from the field in the first half and was 7-for-11 from 3-point range, but the team’s scoring touch evaporated after halftime.

Japan made only 7 of 37 second-half shots including 1 of 10 3-pointers, and the Americans landed 24 of 30 field-goal attempts over the same period to punish their opponents’ mistakes.

“I think it was our strength that pushed them into taking the game seriously, and our weakness that allowed them to get 20 points right after halftime,” said Japan captain Asami Yoshida.

“But they’re the No. 1 team in the world, and just to play against them is a great experience for us. This will be very valuable for Japanese basketball from here on. We had no chance winning when we were shooting like that, but they were just so strong.”

Japan signaled its intention to attack the Americans straight from the tip-off, with Yoshida stealing the ball from Brittney Griner on the first play to set up Sanae Motokawa for the first points of the game.

The U.S. led 30-23 after the first quarter but Japan refused to be shaken off and almost drew level as the game approached halftime.

Successive 3-pointers from Yuka Mamiya and Yoshida brought Japan to within four points at 46-42, before a layup by Tokashiki closed the gap to just two with only minutes of the first half remaining.

“We came into the game knowing that it was going to be almost impossible to keep them from getting open shots,” said U.S. coach Geno Auriemma. “That’s how good they are. Their offense is as good as anything I’ve ever seen in terms of how quickly they move the ball and how quickly they move themselves. They play at such a fast pace.”

But a late U.S. scoring spurt took the score to 56-46 at halftime, and the Americans upped the tempo after the restart to leave Japan trailing in their wake.

“Giving up seven straight points like that was what gave them the 10-point lead, but their shooting was just so accurate,” said Japan coach Tomohide Utsumi.

“We were able to see that the Japanese style of playing can work against teams on the world stage. We can build on that toward the next Olympics and take the next step.”

Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi of the U.S. led all scorers with 19 points each, with seven American players taking their tallies into double figures. Motokawa and Mika Kurihara followed Tokashiki for Japan with 12 points each.

The U.S. — which has won all six of its games in Rio, the closest by a 26-point margin — outrebounded Japan 50-26 and will play France, which defeated Canada 68-63, in the semifinals.

“Some games you need to give a little bit more emotionally, and some games you need to stay calm, which is not my strong suit,” said Taurasi, who already has three Olympic gold medals in her collection. “So I just let it all hang out. I knew if we were going to go, we were going to go with it all hanging out.

“I’m just proud of this team. You look at the score and you think it was an easy game, but Japan is one of the toughest teams — you ask anyone — in this tournament to play against.”

World No. 16 Japan exceeded expectations at the Rio Games, beating Belarus, Brazil and London Olympic silver medalist France to book its place in the quarterfinals.

Defeats to Turkey and powerhouse Australia left Japan to face the U.S. in the last eight, but Utsumi is confident that his team will be stronger in four years’ time.

“It’s a shame that we couldn’t finish a place higher in the standings, but we were able to beat European teams and that will place Japanese basketball in good stead,” said the coach. “This tournament is a big step on the way toward Tokyo 2020.”

Japan’s squad in Rio had an average age of just 24.8, with center Asako O the oldest player at just 28.

“It’s too early to think about four years from now,” said the 25-year-old Tokashiki. “First I want to deal with what’s in front of me. I want to get back to the U.S. and play.

“The Olympics was great fun. I improved a lot and I think this is the best achievement of my career. If I had to describe in one word, I would say it was fun.”

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