When Japan clinched a berth for the second round of FIBA World Cup qualifying last July in Taiwan, Nick Fazekas said that the Akatsuki Five had accomplished their mission.

On Sunday night, that statement felt truer than ever.

One day after they clinched a berth for this summer’s World Cup with a lopsided 96-48 win over Qatar in Doha, Japan’s men’s national team made a triumphant return home.

“We are excited we have earned a spot in the World Cup,” head coach Julio Lamas said at a hotel near Narita Airport soon after the squad’s arrival in Japan on Monday night. “We have worked together with the B. League and Japan Basketball Association. When they talked to me (to hire me as the head coach), I was thrilled (but) I am even more pleased with the result now.”

Japan competed at the World Cup, then known as the FIBA World Championship, as the host in 2006. But it has been 21 years since the East Asian nation booked its ticket to international basketball’s premier competition on its own.

The team took an incredible ride through the Asian qualifiers.

After beginning the campaign with four straight losses, Japan followed with eight consecutive wins to finish runner-up in Group F behind Australia.

Those four losses had put Japan on the verge of elimination. But a miraculous performance in last June’s third match window, including an upset victory over powerhouse Australia, spurred a complete turnaround.

The addition of a marquee trio in Nick Fazekas, Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe was unquestionably huge for the team in order to make its run, even though the latter two missed this week’s games due to their team commitments in the U.S. and the three have yet to take to the court together.

Japan cruised past continental veteran Iran 97-89 in Tehran on Thursday night before routing Qatar on Sunday. The squad featured only players from the B. League, including Fazekas, in both contests.

“Each and every player on this team has a team-first mentality,” said Lamas, the Argentine native who guided his home country’s men’s squad to a fourth-place finish at the 2012 London Olympics. “Even when we were losing four games in a row, we kept our resiliency and continued to build our style.”

Big man Joji Takeuchi, who competed at the 2006 tourney along with his twin brother Kosuke, described Japan’s incredible qualifying comeback as surreal.

“Just about a year ago, we could not imagine that we would win eight in a row and sit right here. And we did not have confidence,” the 34-year-old said. “But now all our players have confidence, and it had certainly led to this great result. All our players love to play for this team and respect each other.”

A total of seven nations qualified for the 32-team World Cup from Asia — Australia, Japan, Iran, the Philippines, New Zealand, South Korea and Jordan. China finished fourth in Group E but qualified automatically as the host country.

The World Cup, which will feature 32 teams for the first time after expanding from 24, will take place from Aug. 31 to Sept. 15.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.