SAITAMA – Late drama capped a hard-fought game between Japan and Tunisia on Sunday afternoon.
The final highlight-reel play belonged to former UCLA guard Michael Roll, who spun just outside the lane and scored a jumper in the final second to lead Tunisia to a gutsy 78-76 triumph over the Akatsuki Five at Saitama Super Arena before an announced crowd of 18,377.
After his big shot, Roll celebrated on Twitter.
“Ayeeeee game winner in Japan!” he tweeted. “That was fun.”
Japan head coach Julio Lamas opted to rest starters Rui Hachimura and captain Ryusei Shinoyama for the team’s final warm-up game before the upcoming FIBA World Cup in China, which begins on Saturday.
Yuta Watanabe, who split time during his rookie season playing for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies and NBA G League’s Memphis Hustle, led Japan, No. 48 in the world rankings, with 17 points. Makoto Hiejima added 12 points and Kosuke Takeuchi had 11 and two blocks, with Yudai Baba scoring nine and dishing out seven assists.
“It’s a pity,” Watanabe said, referring to Japan’s defeat. But he said Japan will exert maximum effort while competing in the World Cup. The Akatsuki Five will face Group E foe Turkey on Sept. 1 in Shanghai in their first World Cup game.
Watanabe added that the team’s focus is “more and more on (moving up) to a higher level.” In defeat, he said, the Akatsuki Five were challenged by Tunisia’s big size.
Despite the loss, Lamas said he was pleased with his team’s effort, noting it was a good experience before the World Cup.
Former NBA center Nick Fazekas had a quiet offensive game with 6 points on 3-for-7 shooting for Japan.
In the flow of the game, “the shots weren’t there,” Fazekas said. “I only shot the ball six times (all 2-point attempts).”
For No. 51 Tunisia, 216-cm big man Salah Mejri had a game-high 20 points, including 8-for-12 shooting from the field, hauled in 10 rebounds and rejected five shots. Roll, who became a naturalized Tunisian citizen in 2015, poured in 19 points, including a game-best three 3-pointers.
Seconds before 32-year-old Roll’s heroics, Watanabe had tied it at 76-76 on a pair of free throws.
Before Watanabe elevated the crowd’s excitement level, Roll flushed a jumper from near the foul line to put his team ahead 76-74, snatching a pass from Omar Abeda on an inbounds play after a timeout.
The Akatsuki Five took their first (and only) lead of the game, 68-66, with under 5 minutes to play. Baba poked away the ball for a key steal and zipped a pass to Takeuchi, who converted a layup.
Tunisia regained momentum with a couple of timely buckets on its next two possessions, then capitalized on a Japan turnover and got a dunk from Mejri to take a 74-68 lead with 2:44 remaining in the contest.
Post player Joji Takeuchi cited offensive shortcomings as a factor in the loss.
“It’s important to make open shots, and it was not something we did,” he said, referring to a general trend.
In the early minutes of the fourth, Japan’s pesky defense forced two shot-clock violations within a short span.
Joji Takeuchi and Baba canned back-to-back 3s to spark a big run, and Kosuke Takeuchi made a tip-in, cutting it to 62-56. Seconds later, Seiya Ando made a layup, prompting Tunisia coach Mario Leonel Palma to call a timeout with 7:21 remaining. That 10-0 run was Japan’s best offensive stretch of the game.
With 5:36 left, Watanabe re-entered the game after resting on the bench and scored on Japan’s next possession to tie it at 66-66.
Japan trailed 59-48 entering the fourth quarter
Mejri, who spent the past four seasons with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, put the final points on the board in the third with an easy deuce, a soft kiss-off-the-glass layup.
Early on, it looked like a rout was quite possible.
Tunisia’s 15-2 run put it in front 22-9 with about 35 seconds to play in the first quarter.
Sloppy ball handling, including eight turnovers, hampered Japan in the first quarter. Mejri had eight first-quarter points, helping Tunisia take control
Tunisia took a 40-35 lead into halftime.
All five Tunisia starters logged 30 or more minutes. Only Watanabe (25:43) played more than 25 for the Akatsuki Five. . . . Before sitting out the final tune-up game for Japan before the World Cup, Hachimura had scored 35, 19, 23 and 31 points on Aug. 12 and 14 (both against New Zealand), Argentina on Thursday and the latter output against Germany in Japan’s 86-83 Saturday triumph at Saitama Super Arena. . . . Twins Kosuke and Joji Takeuchi are Japan’s only current national team players who competed in the 2006 FIBA World Championship. . . . Japan finished with more turnovers (15) than assists (14); Tunisia had nine turnovers and 19 assists.