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The Toyota Antelopes did not back down against rallies from the invincible Sunflowers and grabbed a significant 71-66 victory in Saturday night’s series opener of the 2021 Women’s Japan Basketball League Finals.

It was the first loss that Eneos, an 11-time reigning league champion, received in the finals since falling to the Fujitsu Red Wave in the second game of the 2016 series.

The Sunflowers now have their backs against the wall, as another defeat in the best-of-three series will see their unprecedented championship streak come to an end.

“We played so well defensively and learned so much from this game,” Toyota head coach Lucas Mondelo said after the game at Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2. “But you’ve got to win two games to capture the championship. So we need to make sure we will win tomorrow’s game.”

Game 2 will tip off at 6 p.m. on Sunday. If the Sunflowers tie the series, the decisive third game will be held on Monday night.

The series is a rematch of December’s All Japan Championship final, when Toyota blew a 14-point lead and allowed the Sunflowers, who competed without some of their players including star Ramu Tokashiki, to bring home the Empress’ Cup for the eighth straight year.

The Antelopes entered Saturday’s game intent on avoiding a repeat.

Toyota shocked the arena by seizing the early momentum and jumping out to a 21-0 lead. But the Sunflowers regrouped and gradually cut the deficit, drawing to within as little as one point in the final quarter.

Leaving their heart and soul on the floor, the Antelopes held strong and eventually galloped away with the “W.”

Toyota point guard Shiori Yasuma led her team with 20 points and eight assists while forward Evelyn Mawuli contributed a strong 19-point, 18-rebound double-double.

“We went through the Empress Cup (final) and were saying to each other that we need to make sure we wouldn’t let the same thing happen,” Yasuma said. “And we can give ourselves credit for regrouping (when Eneos surged).”

As some of the Antelopes members including Mondelo said after the game, rebounding was one of the major keys for Toyota’s win. The Nagoya-based team out-rebounded Eneos 52-41, including 20 offensive boards.

Mondelo, who serves as head coach of the Spanish women’s national team, had emphasized the importance of his players’ morale, and his players lived up to his expectations by battling with firm determination.

“When you allow your opponent to bounce back, often you wind up faltering,” said Mondelo, who led Spain to a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. “But our players kept playing with a tough mindset tonight and I’m proud of them.”

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