After two seasons as an NCAA Division I college basketball player, Honoka Ikematsu has learned that mental strength and physical skills are equally important.

The Robert Morris University guard is an integral part of the team, and recognizing how to use both sets of skills are, indeed, vital. She started all 32 games as a freshman in the 2017-18 season and was named to the All-Northeast Conference Rookie Team. Among her biggest highlights that season: A career-high 25 points, including 7 of 10 on 3-pointers, against Sacred Heart on New Year’s Eve.

This season, RMU finished with a 22-11 record. The Colonials advanced to the NCAA Women’s Tournament as a No. 16 seed. They traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, for their third national tourney appearance in four years. The top-seeded University of Louisville Cardinals blasted RMU 69-34 in a first-round game in mid-March.

In a recent interview, Ikematsu, who attended Kumamoto Kokufu High School in her hometown, looked back on the season, growing pains as a sophomore and commented on her development as a player in two seasons at RMU. Colonials assistant coach Asami Morita, who recruited Ikematsu, also spoke to The Japan Times. Morita, a former Kansai University women’s team head coach, has worked as an RMU assistant for five seasons, providing a big boost to the program’s international recruiting efforts.

For Ikematsu, facing mighty Louisville was a nerve-rattling experience.

“I was so excited about it, but at the same time I was kind of scared because I don’t have any experience to play in the biggest tournament,” Ikematsu admitted by phone from the RMU campus in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, which is in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. “I was very honored to be able to participate.”

The Colonials relied on the 167.6-cm guard to provide a spark off the bench and start on occasion, too. She made 14 starts in 32 games, averaging 7.0 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists, playing 20.4 minutes a game. She had a season-high 19 points against Central Connecticut on Jan. 21. As a freshman, Ikematsu averaged 8.9 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 29.5 minutes a game. Perhaps most notable was her outside shooting: 64 of 150 (42.7 percent) from beyond the 3-point arc, and she was third in the NEC in 3-point shooting percentage.

RMU lost three senior starters from its 2017-18 campaign, and head coach Charlie Buscaglia and his coaching staff had to make some changes in molding the team’s identity for this past season.

Making adjustments

Ikematsu recognizes that she endured some up and downs as a sophomore.

“I think I got stronger than last year and I think I need to definitely develop my leadership,” said Ikematsu, who is majoring in psychology and is interested in pursuing a career as a basketball coach.

“As a freshman, I (performed) pretty well. I shot pretty well, but I did struggle in the second year to actually perform.”

That doesn’t mean it was a wasted season.

Ikematsu, in fact, has forged her identity for her junior and senior seasons.

“Toward the end of the year I felt that this was a year I developed more on the mental side,” she said before adding, “I needed to get better (mentally), and I accomplished this throughout the year.”

While her 3-point numbers declined as a sophomore (54-for-165) that experience helped Ikematsu gain the determination to make an impact in other facets of the game.

“I felt like I had to score,” she said of her approach to the game. “I felt like I had to do this, do this, do this, but our team was actually all about the team, not about the individual. Our defense is the key. Are you able to dive for a loose ball? Are you able to step in and take a charge? Are you able to be physical to grab a loose ball for a rebound?”

She summed up her focus this way: “If I have a game where I don’t shoot well, I can play well in other areas.”

Morita echoed that view and explained that the Colonials coaches stress the importance of quality in terms of performance.

“As coaches we often talk about it’s not whether you won or lost the game. It’s more about how you played the game, how you played as a team,” Morita, a former Arizona Western College assistant, told The Japan Times.

“And she started to understand more toward the end of the season, where she was much more focused on how she can help the team and what she can do to help the team out.”

Some early non-conference losses, including six straight defeats in November and early December, forced RMU to speed up its learning curve this past season, Morita noted. Ikematsu had to make adjustments, too.

There were times when the coaches weren’t satisfied with her performance on the court.

“We need you to play harder,” Morita recalled the team’s coaches telling Ikematsu. “Play for the team. Go after loose balls. It’s not about your shooting. It’s about how you play.”

That message eventually resonated with Ikematsu.

“In her first year, Morita said, “she was giving up the loose ball without even going after it; and now, at the end of (her sophomore) season she’s going after loose balls against a center and ripping the ball from the big.”

Morita called this a “sign of her development.”

This offseason, Ikematsu — “who fits in very comfortably into our team culture,” Morita commented — revealed that she wants to add a bit of weight and strengthen her muscles. Another priority: developing a quicker shooting release.

Morita’s ambitions

While working to make Japanese student-athletes more aware of how the NCAA and its 351 Division I women’s college basketball programs operate, Morita acknowledged that she enjoys the challenges of identifying potential recruits from around the world.

“They need to get more familiar with what the NCAA is, what they can accomplish, and basketball is important. But it’s about their life. They have to learn, they have to get an education,” she said of Japanese players.

The Colonials’ 2018-19 roster also featured players from Spain, Finland, England and Canada along with the United States.

Ikematsu is the RMU women’s first-ever Japanese player. Which, of course, could open the door for future Japanese players in the program.

Morita, who guided Kansai to back-to-back second-place conference finishes in 2011 and ’12, confirmed she is interested in Division I head coaching jobs in the future. But the Nara Prefecture native’s omnipresent focus is on continuous improvement.

“I don’t know if it’s going to happen,” she said, “but I just want to continue to learn, continue to develop and become a better coach.”

She continued: “I do know that I’m a lucky one to be here because not that many international coaches get the opportunity to coach (especially at the NCAA Division I level). You have to outwork everybody else to keep your job. I definitely feel I’m a lucky one to have an opportunity to be here and be part of such a great program.”

Helping each others thousands of kilometers from home, Ikematsu and Morita are playing key roles in the continued success of the Robert Morris University Colonials.

For the coach, this isn’t only about Xs and Os, either. She is committed to reminding Ikematsu and her teammates about off-the-court responsibilities, too. “If I tell them, ‘Hey, make sure you talk with an academic adviser by this time,’ they will do so,” Morita said.

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