Basketball

Trailblazer Norika Konno ready to turn heads in U.S.

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

With about 2 minutes and 25 seconds left in the game, Norika Konno scored off a Eurostep, one of her signature moves, for a layup.

By that time, however, the game was virtually over. Konno’s Seiwa Gakuen fell 87-69 to Gifu Girls on Tuesday in the third round of the All Japan High School Championship, one of the country’s three major high school hoop tourneys.

It was a bitter ending to the last big event of her career at the Sendai school. The senior shooting guard was called for three fouls within the first four minutes of the game and picked up her fourth early in the third quarter.

As a result, she was not able to perform all-out defensively in the late stages of the game against one of Japan’s powerhouse teams.

Nevertheless, Konno maintained her composure and tried to help her team on the offensive end.

“I don’t usually have fouls called (on me) too often, so I was surprised I was called for three so quickly,” Konno said after the game at Musashino Forest Sport Plaza. “But my teammates told me that I should just pay it back on offense and I needed to refocus because we still had a game to play.

“I tried to forget about it, score one basket at a time and be careful about fouls.”

Despite the disappointing circumstances behind her exit from the tournament, commonly known as the Winter Cup, Konno’s basketball career will continue. In fact, she is just getting started and still has plenty of room to develop into a much better player after she graduates in March.

Last month, Konno signed a letter of intent to play for the University of Louisville Cardinals in the 2019-20 season.

Standing at 178 cm, Konno is one of the tallest players on the Seiwa Gakuen team, but has phenomenal skills which give her the ability to score from anywhere on the floor. She especially excels in driving in and shaking defenders with her crossover and Eurostep. She also has an exceptional pull-up jumper.

In the three games Konno played at the Winter Cup, she averaged 17 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists. She was one of the biggest attractions of the competition, drawing a large crowd of reporters and TV crews. The attention is warranted, as the 18-year-old will soon cross the Pacific to play for an NCAA power that has recorded three Final Four berths, all in the last decade.

This past year was a cornerstone season for Konno. She played for the national team at the FIBA U-18 Women’s Asian Championship in India and for the national 3×3 squad at the Asian Games and helped Japan to silver-medal finishes in both. She was also called up for a senior national team training camp in April.

Now she’s earned a chance to develop into a player who could eventually represent the sport in Japan. In the U.S., Konno will have the opportunity to compete in a higher level of competition alongside much more talented players.

Asked why she opted to go to the U.S. school, Konno said: “Because there are a lot of players who are as tall as I am and play outside (like myself), and there’s a lot of players who are exceptionally athletic.

“I thought that I would develop myself further by playing in such circumstances.”

Konno plans to leave for Kentucky in late August and begin attending Louisville from the fall semester. She says she is scheduled to go to America to work out on the court, as well as in the classroom improving her English, before that.

On the male side of the game, Japan has recently produced phenoms such as Yuta Watanabe and Rui Hachimura, both of whom went to universities in the States and found success. Konno, who can potentially follow their path while blazing a trail for fellow female players, said she has been inspired by what Watanabe and Hachimura have accomplished.

“Those two have done exceptionally well since they were in high school,” Konno said. “And they’ve worked even harder since they went to the States. I’m not anywhere near where they were (ability-wise) in high school, so I feel I will have to work much harder once I get over there.”

A unique custom in Japanese women’s basketball is the conferring of nicknames known as “court names.” Konno’s teammates call her “Saku,” derived from the Japanese word for “bloom.”

Basketball fans here hope that with her voyage to Louisville, Konno can blossom into an even better player going forward.