Basketball

Makoto Hiejima, Nick Fazekas bring Japan to brink of World Cup berth

Kyodo

A hot-shooting 24-point, six-assist game from Makoto Hiejima pushed Japan past Iran and to the brink of World Cup qualification on Thursday.

Hiejima came up big in the 97-89 victory in Tehran, with Japan’s naturalized center Nick Fazekas continuing his fine play since his return to the national team, adding 26 points and eight rebounds as the Akatsuki Five reeled off its seventh straight win.

“First of all, I am very happy with the victory today but I am not fully satisfied because we are yet to have confirmed our place at the World Cup,” Japan’s Argentine head coach Julio Lamas said, according to the Japan Basketball Association.

“We were excellent for all 40 minutes today. Hiejima, (Joji) Takeuchi and Fazekas all shined.”

The victory moved Japan into second in its World Cup qualifying group and all but ensured the nation will make its fifth appearance in the competition formerly known as the world championships.

With just one qualifier to play — against Group F’s last-ranked team Qatar on Sunday — Japan has 18 points, equal with Iran but ahead on a tiebreaker. Iran next faces group winner Australia while the Philippines, one point behind but also vying for a qualification place, plays the eliminated Kazakhstan.

Group F’s top-three teams qualify, as does the best fourth-ranked team from either it or Group E.

Japan was never troubled in the contest, with a late first-quarter surge giving the Akatsuki Five a seven-point lead that would increase across the next two stanzas. By midway through the final quarter, the visitors were 18 points ahead, only a late push by Iran cut the final deficit.

Hiejima’s shooting proved too much for Iran to counter. The 28-year-old guard had perhaps his best game of the World Cup qualifying tournament at the right time, netting his largest points total in the 11 games played.

The Tochigi Brex player went 9-for-13 from the floor including 2-for-4 from the 3-point line, but he was far from the only player to light up Iran. Fazekas shot 62.5 percent from the floor in his team-high total and big man Joji Takeuchi went 6-for-8 in racking up 17 points.

“I was expecting Fazekas to be focused, so I knew I had to do my part. Despite having to deal with tough defense, I was glad I could play my game,” said Hiejima.

Iran had named its two stars Hamed Haddadi and Samad Nikkhah Bahrami in its squad for the game, but neither played. Instead, it was Mohammad Jamshidi who carried the load, scoring a game-high 33 points, with Sajjad Mashayekhi the only other double-figure scorer at 13 points.