Chasing its lofty goal of capturing a gold medal at next year’s Tokyo Olympics, the Japan women’s national team gained momentum by winning its fourth straight FIBA Women’s Asia Cup title in Bangalore, India, on Sunday.
Two days after accomplishing the feat by edging China 71-68 in the gold-medal contest, the Akatsuki Five made a triumphant return to Tokyo with another trophy in hand.
Japan head coach Tom Hovasse is proud of his squad’s accomplishment, overcoming the “underdog” label entering the biennial tournament.
“We did it. It feels great,” the American said at a news conference on Tuesday morning. “I think we had good preparation going in the tournament. But as we went to India and talked with people from other countries, they would say Japan was an underdog. And I was like ‘Why are we underdogs? We are the (reigning) champions.’ They probably weren’t sure if our players and our staff were good enough to do it, but we did have confidence that if we’d play our game, it would be us that would hoist the championship (trophy). Every game, we raised our level.”
Japan joined South Korea and China in the “four-peat” club at the event.
The Japanese women defeated world No. 3 Australia 76-64 in the semifinals and then China, which is No. 7 in the FIBA rankings. In both contests, Japan, which is 10th, overcame double-digit deficits to win.
Forward Yuki Miyazawa, who averaged 12.8 points in the tourney, insisted that the Asia Cup gave the team nothing but confidence with the way it competed and outplayed some of its tough opponents.
“We came back from 10-point deficits in the first halves against Australia and China,” said the 26-year-old shooting threat who has played on all four title-winning teams. “Before, when we would get behind that much, we would just let the deficit get bigger, and that was Japan’s weakness. But now, we can be patient with our defense and that’s become our strength.”
Hovasse said that the team’s key veterans who competed in the past Asia Cups, such as Miyazawa, Maki Takada and Ramu Tokashiki, helped give it mental stability as well.
“They all have experience now,” said Hovasse, who guided the team to gold in the past two Asia Cups. “So mentally, we’re just a lot stronger. We had two bad starts in the semis and final, but I wasn’t too worried. I don’t think the players were worried either. We knew we would be able to come back.”
Diminutive point guard Nako Motohashi was arguably one of the biggest reasons that Japan ended up standing on the highest spot on the podium. In the last two contests, the 165-cm player came through in the fourth quarter, scoring seven and 11, respectively (She had 22 and 24 points overall in those games).
Motohashi, who was a somewhat obscure player before she was first called up by Hovasse last year, averaged a tournament-high 17.0 points and 5.0 assists.
Fittingly, the 25-year-old won the MVP award while making the all-tournament squad along with Miyazawa despite coming off the bench in all five Japan games.
In August, Motohashi told The Japan Times that she watched Japan’s previous Asia Cup feats as “just as a fan.” Two years later, she is now a heroine thanks to her clutch performances and the recognition that followed.
“I gained confidence having won all those awards,” Motohashi said. “But it only humbles me and makes me feel like I have to do even better.”
With about 300 days until the Tokyo Olympics, Hovasse said that the Asia Cup feat would give his team boost as it aims to claim a gold medal next summer.
“I didn’t really say this to the players or anything,” Hovasse said. “But to me, to win this championship was almost a must to reach our gold-medal goal. I mean, if we had a setback this time, I think it would’ve hurt us a little bit because the World Cup (in which Japan finished ninth in Spain last year) didn’t go the way we wanted it to. And winning this is huge for us. That’s why I think we are still on a path to reach the goal.”