The University of South Carolina Gamecocks women’s basketball team, the reigning NCAA champions, recently completed a tour of Tokyo that included three scrimmages against Japan’s women’s national team and a little time off the court to experience Japanese culture and get a feel for the city where the next Summer Olympics will be held in 2020.
Perhaps as they were just getting back to work during this offseason and were still rusty, the Gamecocks lost all three games against Japan, which has held a series of training camps since the spring in preparation for the July 23-29 FIBA Asia Cup.
Of the three exhibitions contests, the first was played using three 10-minute periods, while the other two had four 10-minute periods. The first two games were closed to the media, and the Akatsuki Five cruised past South Carolina 78-57 at the National Training Center in the third and final game.
Speaking to The Japan Times at the team hotel in Ikebukuro on Wednesday, just hours before the Gamecocks left Japan after a week-long stay, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said the results were “acceptable” given the circumstances.
“But I thought we got better every time we played them,” said Staley, who has been the South Carolina bench supervisor since the 2008-09 season. “I like how our team fought and competed. But when you haven’t had enough practices, and you’re playing against an experienced basketball team, they’ll make you look like that sometimes.”
Some might wonder why South Carolina traveled all the way to Japan. The seeds for the trip were planted during last year’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where Staley served as an assistant for the United States women’s team under head coach Geno Auriemma.
The U.S. crushed Japan 110-64 in the quarterfinals, but the Asian squad played well against the six-time defending Olympic gold medalists, and that left an impression on Staley. That was when Staley and Tom Hovasse, who was an assistant for Japan in Rio and promoted to head coach this spring, got to know each other. Later, Staley broached the idea of bringing her squad to Japan.
“I was really impressed (by Japan) with their style of play, their speed, and the skillset of their players,” said Staley, who has won a total of five Olympic gold medals as a player and coach and was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
Staley, a former star point guard for the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting and Houston Comets, said veteran Japan playmaker Asami Yoshida, caught her eye in particular.
“They’ve got an incredible point guard,” Staley said of Yoshida. “She managed the game fairly well, and she keeps their opponents back on their heels, and they did that. She’s great. She uses her experience, she used (it) against us for sure.
“Japan was one of the teams I was really impressed with.”
Yoshida, 29, said she didn’t get a chance to have a conversation with Staley, but knows the American is a great coach.
“I think she’s a stern coach from what I’ve seen,” said Yoshida, a three-time Women’s Japan Basketball League postseason MVP. “I think she tells her players to not commit mistakes because a single mistake could cost you a game, and that’s the same as what we are told. I felt that they were very good team and think that her players are happy to play under her.”
Staley was already one of the more recognizable coaches in women’s basketball, and her profile has only risen since being named to succeed Auriemma as coach of the U.S. women’s national team in March and leading the Gamecocks to their first-ever national title in April.
Staley said the USA position is a “pressure-packed” job because you are always asked to win and “sustain the certain level of success” while doing it the right way.
Yet she embraces the challenge and is motivated to bring another gold medal to her country three years from now at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“Being the head coach for our national team is something that I’ve always wanted to do,” the Philadelphia native said. “The only way you can become a head coach of an Olympic national team is either you become a college coach or you become a professional coach. I chose to go to college hoops. And you have to be within the USA Basketball system. So for me, as a competitor, you want to be the very best at what you do, being able to check off a box. And being a national championship coach, I want to be able to check off the box of being a gold medal Olympic coach.
“Basketball has set that up for me. Every time I ask basketball to provide me with something, it always has a way of giving me an opportunity. And I’m hoping that the success continues.”
While in Japan, Staley and her players visited Saitama Super Arena, which will be the sport’s venue at the Tokyo Games.
“It’s amazing. The presentation was pretty cool, to see all the various things that the arena can do,” Staley said. “But I was especially excited to see how it was situated to play basketball. We were just trying to visualize (how it would be at the Olympics). I wanted our players to get to experience of what the Olympic arena looks like and feels like. Some of them will get to play in the Olympic Games. So we wanted to make sure they got a chance to experience that.”
Staley added that it was another reason she and her team came to Tokyo.
“Selfishly, I wanted to get the good feel for fast-forwarding to three years from now. And hopefully we’ll make a trip over here before three years. I’m quite sure USA Basketball will somehow schedule to play somewhere here, before the time. But it’s always good to acclimate and familiarize yourself with the culture, to have a great experience.”
Off the basketball court, the Gamecocks players, more than half of whom had never been outside the U.S. accoring to Staley, were able to hit the town, going to places like Asakusa, Tokyo Disneyland, Shibuya crossing and Emperor’s Palace, during the trip.