SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – Rui Hachimura moved to the United States last year with a big dream to eventually become an NBA player. In order to achieve that, he will have to excel at college level.
But who would have thought that he’d play until this deep into his first year? And that he would have a chance to appear in the Final Four?
“This is something Gonzaga hasn’t done before in its history, and now history has changed,” Hachimura said after the team’s 83-59 win over Xavier University in the Elite Eight round of the West Regional at the NCAA Tournament at SAP Center in San Jose on Saturday. “It’s been our mission and we feel great to have accomplished it.”
Hachimura, a true freshman who joined the team last fall after he graduated Sendai’s Meisei High School earlier the same year, came on with less than a minute left in the game after Gonzaga had already secured the victory.
Yet the 19-year-old sent the ecstatic Gonzaga fans in the stands even wilder. He hit a long 3 a few steps away from the 3-point line at the top of the key with 41 seconds remaining. Hachimura had already played in two games but that was his first score in the tourney.
“I was sent out to the court in the last minute. My body was stiff and I thought I couldn’t do anything,” said Hachimura, who is understood to be the first player with Japanese citizenship to play in the NCAA Tournament. “But I got a pass and had to shoot before the clock wound down, and it just went in.”
Hachimura admitted that he had not realized how big of a deal it was to make it to the Final Four right before the Elite Eight contest.
“When we got into the Elite Eight (round), I was just like, ‘Okay, this is the Elite Eight,’ ” he said. “But then we were talking about how we would have a shot at the Final Four, which would mean we’d be one of only four teams still playing in the whole of America. Then I thought, ‘That’s crazy.’ “
Hachimura, a Toyama Prefecture native, is unlikely to play much at the Final Four, which will be played between April 1-3 at the University of Phoenix Stadium.
The forward averaged 2.6 points and 1.4 rebounds playing 4.7 minutes per game this season. In the three games he has played in the NCAA Tournament, he has racked up three points and one rebound.
Hachimura and the team’s coaching staff said that this year has been about laying a foundation for him to build on in his second year.
“That’s very important,” Hachimura said, when asked if he is playing to gain experience, even in the NCAA tourney. “My coaches have told me to use this year as a preparation period, studying hard, learning English while I play basketball hard. They told me that I wouldn’t have to think about the game too much.
“We actually had a conversation as to whether I should redshirt this year, but I didn’t want to do that. But I’m working on things, thinking ahead about next year.”
Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said after the team’s Sweet 16 win over West Virginia: “To be honest with you, the easy decision probably would’ve been redshirt. But we also felt that maybe getting him a few minutes here and there would be good experience for him for next year and kind of keep him emotionally and mentally engaged. But it’s hard for him to stay focused and be ready to play when you haven’t played. But it’s not his fault.
“Now he’s on the biggest stage, playing in a sold-out arena, it was so much pressure. But this is his first time, he’s not ready. But he’s seeing it this year. Our goal for next year is, he’s going to be more than ready, and that’s been our plan all along.
“And we would say Rui is going to be a centerpiece for our future. And we know it’s going to take time. We’ve had another player like that in the past. (Senior center Przemek) Karnowski in his freshman year, he played a little bit but not much. It takes time for some of these guys.”
Karnowski, a Polish big man, said that Hachimura has kept a great attitude, working extremely hard all year.
“I think his English has gotten a lot better, and just being on the floor, I think he’s gotten better, playing against harder opponents,” said Karnowski. “Because, to be honest, I don’t think the players he played against in Japan were as big as us.”
Hachimura’s phenomenal physical ability was unparalleled in Japan. It hasn’t changed since he came to the U.S. and is one of the strengths that his teammates expect him to use.
“He’s going to be a big-time player for this team,” junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss said of Hachimura. “You just see his natural ability, raw talent. We have all the confidence in the world in him. When he comes in, we expect him to play well.”
Asked how he’d feel about potentially playing in front of massive crowds — expected to be around 70,000 at an NFL stadium at the Final Four — Hachimura said: “Whether I’ll get to play or not, there’s not many people who can have that experience, even for Americans. I would like to do it with the pride of a Japanese.”
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