For the first time in 12 years, the Women’s Japan Basketball League has a champion that isn’t the Eneos Sunflowers.
The Toyota Antelopes ended the Sunflowers’ long reign by completing a sweep of the WJBL Finals with a 70-60 win in Game 2 at Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 on Sunday night.
“We’ve been chasing Eneos for the last 10 years and now we’ve done it,” Toyota guard and captain Naho Miyoshi said after her team’s victory in the best-of-three series.
There was no champion last year as the remainder of the season and postseason was canceled due to COVID-19.
It was the first league title for the Nagoya-based club, which had fallen to the Sunflowers four times in the finals.
One day after it struck first in the series, Game 2 was played similarly with Toyota taking a lead on a 11-0 run from the tipoff and Eneos eventually catching up. But the Antelopes regained their momentum taking advantage of a defensive effort limiting Eneos to only nine points in the third quarter.
Toyota had five double-digit scorers led by Japan national team forward Moeko Nagaoka, who racked up 13 on 3-for-3 shooting from behind the arc. For the Sunflowers, Mako Fujimoto and Yunika Nakamura topped 10 points with 15 and 10, respectively.
The Sunflowers, who began their historic title streak in the 2008-09 season, entered the finals as the favorites — statistically at least — with a league-best 15-1 record in the regular season.
The Sunflowers, however, were at less than full strength. Star center/forward Ramu Tokashiki, a seven-time league MVP and former WNBA player for the Seattle Storm, tore an ACL last December and didn’t play, while veteran national team forward Yuki Miyazawa competed with an injured shoulder.
One of the team’s biggest advantages through the years has been its height, which was provided by Tokashiki and Juna Kadysha Umezawa, who are both over 190 cm. Eneos guard Sayaka Okamoto said they lost that edge with Tokashiki sidelined and had to find ways to compensate.
“I realized how big of a presence Tokashiki has been and that was a hole that I couldn’t fill by myself,” said the 29-year-old Okamoto, who joined the Sunflowers out of Oka Gakuen High School along with Tokashiki in 2010. “Tokashiki had always been helping me out on the court. So I’ve had a tough time.”
Toyota, meanwhile, had its own adversity to overcome.
Toyota faced Eneos in December’s All-Japan Championship final and was in a great position to hoist the Empress Cup with the Sunflowers playing without Tokashiki and some other key members.
The Antelopes, however, succumbed to a late-game surge by the Sunflowers, blowing a lead that grew to as big as 14 points.
The Antelopes admitted the memory of that contest became a source of motivation in the WJBL Finals.
“After we lost in the Empress Cup, we practiced harder by competing with each other,” Toyota center Miyuki Kawamura said. “In both games in the finals, we got off to a great start but allowed our opponents to catch up with us. But nobody on our team put their head down and the players both on the court and on the bench kept telling each other that we could do it. We kept doing that for 40 minutes and it resulted in this championship.”
Miyoshi said the Antelopes lost in the Empress Cup final because they couldn’t stay together mentally. She said even when the team had a lead, it felt like a deficit as the Sunflowers began to catch up.
She said Toyota was able to learn from that experience.
“Before, we couldn’t face each other when we were playing badly, and that was the case in the Empress Cup as well,” Miyoshi said. “But after that, we’ve tried to look each other in the eye, no matter how badly we were doing, and communicate. We had some bad moments in today’s game too, but we saw each other, we talked to each other. It showed this team has changed.”
Toyota guard Shiori Yasuma was named the playoff MVP after the game. The 26-year-old averaged 12 points, 10 assists and 8.5 rebounds in the finals.
Okamoto was named MVP of the regular season, winning the award for the first time.
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