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One of the more noticeable things on display at the Winter Cup — officially known as the All-Japan High School Tournament — in recent years has been the ethnic diversity on the court.

Rui Hachimura — born to a Japanese mother and Beninese father — is the most prominent example, but the number of players with at least one non-Japanese parent is growing.

Meisei had never had a biracial player before Hachimura, a Toyama native, joined the team in 2013. Things have changed since then, with five such players currently on the school’s roster, including Ibu Yamazaki and Bruce Kanno.

Yamazaki, a Chiba Prefecture native who has a Guinean father and Japanese mother, is said to have enrolled at Meisei in part due to his adoration of Hachimura and desire to play at an NCAA school — like Hachimura did — after his graduation, which is projected to be in the spring of 2022.

Yamazaki, a versatile player who can slash and shoot 3s and at one time played on Japan’s U-16 team, is probably No. 1 in terms of individual talent among the players at this year’s Winter Cup.

He’d played in two games through Sunday — Meisei had one game canceled after its opponent withdrew for COVID-19 reasons — averaging 33.5 points and 15 rebounds while also shooting 5-for-15 from 3-point range.

Kanno is equally athletic and not far behind Yamazaki. An injury, however, will likely keep the second-year guard off the floor.

Meisei's Ibu Yamazaki defends against Fukuoka Daiichi guard John Lawrence Harper Jr. during the Winter Cup quarterfinals on Sunday. | JBA
Meisei’s Ibu Yamazaki defends against Fukuoka Daiichi guard John Lawrence Harper Jr. during the Winter Cup quarterfinals on Sunday. | JBA

Point guard John Lawrence Harper Jr. of Fukuoka Daiichi and Taiga Jones of Kaishi Kokusai are also promising talents who have brought athleticism and leadership to their schools.

Hyogo Prefecture’s Hotoku features freshman guard Luka Toews, younger brother of Kai Toews of the B. League’s Utsunomiya Brex. Their father BT, a Canadian, is the head coach of the Fujitsu Red Wave in the Women’s Japan Basketball League.

Meisei faced two-time reigning champion Fukuoka Daiichi in the quarterfinals in one of the more marquee matchups of the tournament. The showdown between Yamazaki and Harper was a major reason for the hype surrounding the contest.

Meisei won a close game 64-61 to book its first spot in the semifinals since 2015, when the school completed a Winter Cup three-peat with Hachimura as it’s top player.

“I’m playing as the team’s ace player, so I knew I had to make those shots,” Yamazaki said about two 3-pointers he made late in the third quarter that seemed to give his squad a boost. “I tried to do too much earlier, but once I settled down, I started hitting them.”

Harper was left in tears after failing to guide his team to a third straight title.

“Coach (Takashi) Ideguchi told me to go make shots and win it for us but I missed when things mattered the most,” Harper said. “I also failed to make passes to my teammates and we lost the game because of me.”

Harper, who had a triple-double with 12 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in the loss, had been playing in the shadow of Yuki Kawamura during the team’s title runs the past two years. He was finally able to step in the spotlight as a senior this year and played with the pressure of completing a three-peat on his shoulders.

Kawamura is currently a freshman at Tokai University and allowed to play for the B. League’s Yokohama B-Corsairs on a specially-appointed player rule.

Harper promised to use the frustration as motivation going forward.

“I’d like to be a player who represents the B. League and national team and stuff like that,” said Harper, who was born to a Japanese mother and an American father. “I’d also like to become a better player than Yuki Kawamura.”

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