Japan’s star duo of Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe proved their talent on Monday evening, coming through down the stretch in the hosts’ 70-56 win over Iran in a FIBA World Cup Asian qualifier at Ota City General Gymnasium.
Japan (4-4), which cruised past Kazakhstan 85-70 on Thursday, got off to a 2-0 start in the second round and extended its winning streak to four games going back to the first round. The team began its World Cup qualification campaign with four straight losses.
Iran, which has six wins, was handed its second loss of qualifying.
Gonzaga University phenom Hachimura scored a game-high 25 points for Japan, while Watanabe chipped in with 18 points.
“It was a tough game,” Akatsuki Five head coach Julio Lamas said after the game. “We didn’t play how we wanted to in the first half, but we defended effectively in the second half and it helped us win.”
It was indeed a tale of two halves as Japan struggled to take open shots against Iran’s stingy defense and were held to just 31 points in the first half compared to Iran’s 35.
Watanabe, who signed a two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies this summer, had an especially difficult time finding his shooting touch, going just 1-for-9 from the field in the opening half and scoring only four points.
Japan made its necessary adjustments at both ends during halftime. Offensively, it was able to move the ball better while it also laying out a tenacious defense against the West Asian visitors.
The third quarter was the highlight for the hosts, provoking loud chants from the packed stands as Hachimura and Watanabe ran rampant, netting eight points apiece. Japan outscored Iran 26-8 in the period to take the lead, riding the momentum for the remainder of the night.
“I’m happy that we were able deliver the win with the entire team,” said Hachimura, who also racked up seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks. “(Iran) was physically strong, so we tried to not get beaten in rebounding too much and we did well.”
Japan grabbed 38 rebounds while Iran cleaned the boards 44 times. The Akatsuki Five’s defensive effort was remarkable, as it held the visitors to a field-goal percentage of just 33.8.
While Watanabe acknowledged his shooting struggles, the 23-year-old did not let his head drop and instead focused on his defensive strengths. In the closing stages, Lamas assigned Watanabe to defend against Iranian shooting guard Behnam Yakhchalidehkordi, who was on fire earlier in the game.
“Anyone can have a day when you have bad shooting touch,” Watanabe reflected. “Even though I wasn’t shooting well myself, I intended to shut No. 8 (Yakhchalidehkordi) out in the second half.”
Ever since his days at alma mater George Washington University, Watanabe’s ability to guard players in different positions with his length and athleticism have resulted in him being handed a defensive stopper role.
The player dubbed “Japan’s Chosen One” for his rare size and versatility confessed that he was “pleased” when his coach told him to stop Yakhchalidehkordi.
“I was thinking that was my role,” Watanabe said. “So I was able to switch my mindset by doing that. It’s something I’ve done since I was at George Washington and something that I take pride in. My feet were moving well and I think I did a good job of guarding him.”
Yakhchalidehkordi had a team-best 21 points for Iran, but was held to just seven points in the second half.
With Hachimura and Watanabe seemingly unable to play in future qualifiers due to their team obligations in the United States, Monday’s showdown was a must-win. Now the pressure is on Lamas and company to develop a winning plan for the team’s next two games, against Qatar and Kazakhstan in Toyama in late November and early December, without their biggest stars.
“Both Rui and I wish we could find a way to return to Japan (to play for the national team),” admitted Watanabe. “Our next two games will be held in Japan. We want to be there, but we have to be realistic. Both of us have teams to play for, so hopefully we’ll find the best way forward through discussions with (the Japan Basketball Association) and our teams.”
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