The Eneos Sunflowers may have extended their All-Japan Championship title streak to eight straight, but that wasn’t the biggest news of the day.
What captured more attention was how they secured this latest Empress Cup while playing without star Ramu Tokashiki and a few other core players.
The team lost Tokashiki during the quarterfinals Wednesday, with the center/forward suffering an ACL tear — an injury that may also have a major effect on the national team’s pursuit of gold at the Tokyo Olympics next summer.
The club, based in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, was already without key members such as Saki Hayashi and Kadysha Juna Umezawa. Both are also national team members and missing due to injuries.
So even having won seven straight titles, the Sunflowers went into Sunday’s final against the Toyota Antelopes as slight underdogs.
Eneos, however, still found a way to end up as the team hoisting the Cup.
When the final buzzer sounded to give the team a 87-80 victory, many Sunflowers players — including Tokashiki, who had been cheering on her teammates from the bench — burst into tears of joy.
“I’m in my ninth season with Eneos, but this is the sweetest championship for me,” veteran forward Yuki Miyazawa said after the game at Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.
“After Tokashiki was sidelined, the championship wasn’t guaranteed anymore, and I thought about a scenario where we weren’t the team that won this time.”
In the end, the Sunflowers played with the belief their brand of basketball would give them the best chance to win, regardless of who was on the floor.
“We were confident if we could play our own game, which is to play tough defense and grab more rebounds and connect that with our uptempo offense. That’s Eneos basketball. We were in a tough situation, but we played as a unit.
Sunflowers head coach Eiki Umezaki only used six players against Toyota, with four on the court for the full 40 minutes.
Eneos point guard Sayaka Okamoto, who said she didn’t sleep well before the final three games, relayed what Tokashiki said to encourage her teammates — who were worried about not being able to defend the title.
“I was so afraid to lose and could not endure the pressure,” Okamoto said. “But Tokashiki told us, ‘We don’t have anything to lose because I’m not here.’ I’m sure she’s going through a lot of pain right now herself, but she told us we only need to give our best out there.”
The 29-year-old Tokashiki isn’t just the Sunflowers’ top player, she’s also the lynchpin of the Akatsuki Five, the national team. The injury, however, will likely prevent her from competing at the Tokyo Olympics.
Okamoto said playing without the team’s biggest stars isn’t a completely new phenomenon for the Sunflowers, as Tokashiki and Miyazawa, among others, are regularly called up for national team duty.
Asked if the uptempo style the team employed Sunday helped make up for the lack of inside presence and height Tokashiki and Umezawa usually provide, Okamoto said, “We’ve always tried to push the ball, with the players we have, when they’re with the national team during preseason summer camps.
“So just like in those cases, we tried to use our speed and push the ball up the court with all five players on the floor. It reminded me of our own summer camps, and doing as well as we did gave us confidence going forward.”
The Sunflowers still have unfinished business and will have to finish the remainder of the 2020-21 season with a depleted roster. They’ll resume their hunt for a 12th straight Women’s Japan Basketball League title early next month.
“We don’t have Tokashiki or some other core players, so the remaining players have to step up,” Miyazawa said. “So we can’t afford to be satisfied with this title.
“Each and every one of us will have to keep going through tough training,” she added. “But our younger players understand that, and it’s down to how much those of us with experience can lead them. We’re certainly happy now, but we’ve got to be in a serious mode soon.”
Eneos is a perfect 10-0 in the 2020-21 WJBL campaign.
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