The Japanese women’s national basketball team made a triumphal return home on Monday, fresh from winning the Asia Cup for the third straight time.
The Akatsuki Five, who edged Australia 74-73 in Saturday’s thrilling championship game, flew back to Narita airport on Monday morning with the gold medals around their necks.
This latest championship victory had a somewhat different flavor. Unlike in the previous two Cups, in 2013 and 2015, the team played without star forward Ramu Tokashiki, who was awarded the tournament MVP at those two tournaments and is currently busy playing in the WNBA. Also, team captain and point guard Asami Yoshida did not play in the semifinal and final because of a knee injury.
On top of that, Oceania teams Australia and New Zealand were admitted into the tournament to determine Asia’s top team for the first time.
Nevertheless, head coach Tom Hovasse and his squad never lost faith in themselves because they entered the tournament having had more preparation than any of the other seven teams.
“We’d practiced for 3½ months (in training camps) to prepare for this tournament,” said the American bench boss, who took over the helm in April, in Japanese. “We saw how much preparation countries like Australia, China and South Korea had put in, but we knew we were way more prepared than them. We traveled to the U.S. and Europe, played against (the University of) South Carolina.
“In a tournament like this, you face different types of teams every day, very competitive teams, teams that have speed, teams that have height. So you have a new challenge every day. But we had good preparation and I believed that we had the answers to take on any team. So I had confidence.”
The Japanese team, which is ranked No. 13 in the world, successfully dispelled the doubt that it could not win without star players like Tokashiki. Japan was also missing the injured Sanae Motokawa, who was the team’s leading scorer in the 2015 tournament.
Hovasse stressed the need to play as a team and that certainly paid off.
Japan’s three point guards, Manami Fujioka, Yoshida and Rui Machida, dominated the top three assist rankings in the tournament. Fujioka, who was selected in the all-tournament team along with teammate Moeko Nagaoka, had the most at 8.2. Hovasse said that it showed how his squad competed as a group.
“I’ve never seen it, three players from the same team,” Hovasse said. “This team doesn’t have selfish players.”
Veteran inside player Yuka Osaki, who was part of all three championship teams, said: “We were often asked about Tokashiki’s absence before the tournament. But we had practiced for a situation where we didn’t have her anyway, so we weren’t worried too much, and we went into the tournament thinking it was a new challenge for Japan.”
Japan, which ended the Asia Cup with a 5-1 record (the sole loss came in the qualifying round against Australia) is the third team to accomplish a three-peat in tournament history, following in the footsteps of South Korea and China.
Yet Yoshida said that the team was not dwelling too much on defending its title.
“We just tried to win one game at a time,” the 29-year-old Yoshida said. “With this championship, we think that we’ve gotten to the start line. We’ll have Olympic qualifying and the Olympics (in Tokyo) from this point on, but in order to make basketball a major sport, we would like to keep moving forward.”