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Despite last week’s sweep of Portugal in a three-game exhibition series, Japan’s women’s basketball team has pressing questions in need of answers ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

The showdown against the European side at Yokohama Budokan marked the first competition for the Akatsuki Five in over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In that time they have lost several core players to injuries and retirements — a group that includes Ramu Tokashiki, Asami Yoshida and Yuka Osaki, who all helped Japan reach the quarterfinals at Rio 2016.

The Portugal series offered head coach Tom Hovasse a chance to trial his 16-player squad, only five of whom represented Japan in Brazil, but many of them appeared rusty and sluggish, in part as a result of the long break.

The circumstances didn’t garner sympathy from Hovasse, who had harsh words for some of his players — especially when they made mental errors. Among them was 26-year-old shooting guard Saki Hayashi, who is usually deadly from beyond the 3-point arc but showed reluctance during Japan’s first game against Portugal on Thursday.

“Hayashi didn’t take shots when she had chances, and that’s not good at all,” Hovasse said of Hayashi, who went on to potentially redeem herself in Sunday’s series finale with a pair of 3s in Japan’s 67-58 win. “Shooting is her job. She’s not a playmaker and if she doesn’t shoot, she has no place with us.”

Point guard Saori Miyazaki also had tough times satisfying the American bench boss. During the second quarter of Game 2, Hovasse yelled at Miyazaki, who was dribbling while looking to pass the ball. The coach later explained that despite Hayashi and Yuki Miyazawa, two of his best shooters, running down the right side of the court, Miyazaki did not see them and passed to someone else.

“I couldn’t stand the decision-making,” Hovasse said. “It wasn’t the first time. She made a decision like that in the first game and she’s done that during our practices, too. So I couldn’t stand it. We have to have her practice more otherwise it’ll be bad for herself and for our team.”

Naho Miyoshi led Japan in Thursday's series opener, with 14 points. | KYODO
Naho Miyoshi led Japan in Thursday’s series opener, with 14 points. | KYODO

Hovasse has been tough on his players, but they know the pressure they will be under at the Olympics will be much more intense.

“Tom’s said that the pressure will be greater at the Olympics and there’s no doubt about that,” said power forward Monica Okoye, who starred in Game 2 by making four 3s for 12 points. “And as he says, if we can’t endure the pressure from him, we won’t be able to perform to our best at the games. So I’d like to think this is a great opportunity and I have to keep believing in myself, even when I get scolded by him.”

Japan, ranked No. 10 in the world, is still aiming for a gold medal in Tokyo despite losing the team’s aforementioned veteran stars.

That goal may seem daunting in light of the side’s performance against No. 48-ranked Portugal and its tough assignment in the group stage with games against Nigeria, France and the United States — the six-time reigning gold medalist.

Ahead of the Olympics, Japan will only have two more warm-up games, against Belgium and Puerto Rico at Saitama’s Saiden Chemical Arena on July 15 and 17, respectively.

Though Hovasse remains positive and says that more actual games will help the team’s new players develop chemistry ahead of their first Olympics, he and his coaching staff will have to go back to the drawing board after combinations of players that were expected to do well underperformed against Portugal.

“We still need to keep searching for the right sets,” he said after the final game. “We’ve actually found some other good combinations with different players, so we want to keep observing during our practices.”

The team will enter its next training camp on Saturday. Hovasse said he would bring in several players from the United States to help his players adjust to the physical attributes of the opponents they’ll be facing at the games.

Japan’s final 12-player roster is expected to be announced late this month.

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