DOHA – Japan completed an amazing turnaround to qualify for the basketball World Cup on Sunday, with Nick Fazekas keying an eighth straight win that punched the team’s ticket to China.
The U.S.-born Fazekas poured in 20 points and dominated the glass, finishing with 19 rebounds, as Japan closed out a 96-48 win over Qatar in Doha.
After a slow start to qualification in which Japan lost its first four games, the win means the Akatsuki Five will travel to China for the World Cup, which takes place from Aug. 31 to Sept. 15 and features the world’s top 32 teams.
The men’s team also strengthened its case for a place at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, with the sport’s governing body scheduled to make its decision on whether to award Japan a spot as the host nation in March.
“I am a really happy coach today, (happy) that we go to the World Cup in September,” said Japan’s Argentinian coach Julio Lamas.
“This is very good for Japan basketball, for the young players of Japan basketball. The opportunity to compete with the best gives them a chance to improve.
“When we started by losing the first four games they . . . worked hard and when Nick came to the team, and we had a few games with (Rui) Hachimura and (Yuta) Watanabe, we started a new time for the team. To make the World Cup in China, I am very happy.”
Despite Japan being without its young U.S.-based stars Hachimura and Watanabe in Qatar, 33-year-old veteran Fazekas showed the team could still deliver on the offensive end. He also got plenty of support from his teammates.
Makoto Hiejima again proved his worth with 12 points, going 5-for-6 from the floor and 2-for-2 from the 3-point line, and four assists, while Naoto Tsuji and Yudai Baba both made contributions from the bench, tallying 12 and 11 points, respectively.
“When I first joined this team we were 0-4 and we’ve won eight in a row since. We have needed every single one of them to advance to the World Cup,” said Fazekas, who averaged a tournament-high 27.2 points per game during the qualifiers.
“It is hard to put into words, you know, I have never had a chance to play in anything like this. Coach Lamas has told me what a special experience it is and how much fun the World Cup is going to be, and for us to get there it is just great for the country of Japan.”
After taking the lead against Qatar early, Japan never looked back, outscoring the Middle Eastern squad in each quarter.
At halftime, Japan was up 42-25 and in an unassailable spot. But the Akatsuki Five weren’t keen on giving the home team any hope, blowing Qatar away with a 22-9 third quarter that allowed them to extend their lead to 48 at one point.
“Today, we were able to make shots,” said Fazekas. “When we are able to get stops on defense we are able to get out in transition and that’s what we are good at.”
Lamas, 54, pointed to the team’s outside shooting as a major catalyst of its recent success. The team shot 50 and 56 percent from deep in the final two qualifiers against Iran and Qatar.
“The players were very good in their shooting percentage in both games, and had a high percentage in 3-point shots,” he said.
“Because the 3s are good and we are in good dynamics we have more confidence than a few months ago and this situation helps.”
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