Basketball

Japan ends World Cup journey with disappointing loss to Montenegro

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The squad dubbed the best-ever in its history will exit China with nothing to celebrate.

Japan’s men’s basketball team fell 80-65 to Montenegro in its final game at the 2019 FIBA World Cup on Monday, failing to post a single victory in five games at the event.

Through Monday’s classification round results, Japan finished 31st in the 32-nation tournament — only ahead of the Philippines. It has also failed to record its first-ever win over a European country at the World Cup, which had previously been called the World Championship, in its fifth attempt.

Japan had recorded at least one win in each of its previous four World Cup appearances.

“Of course, we are not satisfied with this result at all. We wanted to win at least one,” Japan head coach Julio Lamas said after the game at Dongguan Basketball Center. “Throughout this tournament, we have been taught that we still have a variety of areas in which we need to improve in order to compete against the rest of the world. In fact, we do have room to grow in every aspect.”

As in its previous four games, Japan had a slow start yet managed to make a comeback and tie the game midway through in the third quarter.

But Montenegro, a World Cup debutant, pulled away after that and Japan was unable to respond, giving the tiny European side a historic first World Cup victory.

Yuta Watanabe spiritedly — and single-handedly — tried to guide the Akatsuki Five from the beginning until the end. The 24-year-old two-way signing for the Memphis Grizzlies racked up a game-high 34 points and nine rebounds in 37 minutes. The Kagawa Prefecture native, who kept attacking the rim, was 12 for 12 from the free-throw line as well.

Watanabe insisted that he simply tried to bring out his best after Japan played horribly in a 111-81 loss to New Zealand on Saturday.

“I felt so ashamed of myself after the New Zealand game, so I didn’t want to end the tournament that way,” he said. “You might say I should have done this earlier (and) not in this final game. But I tried to give my 100 percent and came up with the stats. I wanted to lead the team to a win.”

Versatile forward Yudai Baba had 11 points and five rebounds while Nick Fazekas collected 10 points and eight boards for the East Asian representatives.

For Montenegro, Orlando Magic All-Star center Nikola Vucevic led the team with 18 points and three other players scored double-digit points.

Japan’s 3-point shooting woes continued this day, as the players failed to hit a single shot from beyond the arc in 16 attempts.

Veteran shooting guard Makoto Hiejima, who scored two points for Japan, said: “It’s extremely pitiful. Winning this game would’ve given us some confidence back, but this is where we are. We are going to go back (to Japan) and improve ourselves further.”

The Akatsuki Five will return home on Tuesday.