Akatsuki Five extend winning streak to six after downing Kazakhstan

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Nick Fazekas has said he would welcome one of his Japan teammates stepping into the limelight.

But as usual, it was he who came through, becoming the biggest factor in the Akatsuki Five’s latest victory.

The naturalized Japanese center racked up 41 points and 15 rebounds to lead the men’s national team to an 86-70 win over Kazakhstan before a sold-out crowd of 4,193 at Toyama City Gymnasium on Monday night.

With the win, Japan (6-4) extended to six its winning streak in the FIBA World Asian Qualifiers and moved up to third place in Group F. The top three teams in the two groups (E and F) and the better fourth-place team will advance to next summer’s World Cup in China.

In February’s final window of the qualifiers, Japan will travel west to face Iran on Feb. 21 and Qatar on Feb. 24.

After kicking off the campaign with four straight losses, Japan mounted its turnaround from the third window with the additions of talent such as Fazekas, Gonzaga star Rui Hachimura and Memphis Grizzlies two-way signing Yuta Watanabe.

“The time we were losing was tough for our players,” Japan head coach Julio Lamas said after the game. “But it feels great to have won six in a row and we were able to make it happen because of our effort as a team. But we still have games to play. We are going to have to play the remaining two games away in February, so we will keep working hard.”

With Japan up 34-33 at halftime, Fazekas sparked the team with 14 points in the third quarter alone. The 33-year-old University of Nevada product added nine more in the final stanza.

Japan outscored Kazakhstan 24-12 in the fourth quarter thanks to stingy defending — five of the team’s 12 steals came in the fourth, compared to just one for the visitors.

Brisbane Bullets shooting guard Makoto Hiejima and Alvark Tokyo guard Daiki Tanaka followed Fazekas with 14 points and 11 points, respectively.

“We know it was a must-win, so we felt like we had to win. That’s what we were able to do,” said Fazekas, who obtained Japanese citizenship in April. “So we’ve put ourselves in a great position to qualify for the World Cup.

“We’ve won six in a row, which is pretty impressive (after) starting 0-4. It’s sweet, it’s something we are very proud of as a team.”

Japan swept this window without young stars Watanabe and Hachimura, who are currently playing in the United States. Captain Ryusei Shinoyama confessed that he was relieved the team earned the two wins in their absence.

“People were saying that Hachimura and Watanabe would not play and we would have to play around our B. League players,” said Shinoyama, who had one point and three assists. “Actually, we had a meeting (before the game) today, and Joji (Takeuchi) inspired us by saying, ‘It’s we who will help ourselves, not Hachimura and Watanabe.’ And we ended up being able to do that.”

For Kazakhstan (4-6), Alexandr Zhigulin had 23 points while Anton Bykov followed with 11 points.

Fazekas underwent ankle surgery over the summer and missed the previous window in September. He described his rehabilitation as being difficult, but was thrilled that he was able to put up a “Nick Fazekas-type of game” on Monday night.

“This is a big confidence-builder for me being able to put up 41 and 15,” said Fazekas, who also recorded two steals.