Japan’s women’s basketball team got off to a great start in its quest for a spot on the podium with a thrilling 74-70 win over France in their first game in Group B on Tuesday.
The hosts and the French squad went toe-to-toe — while employing completely different styles — throughout a seesaw affair that saw 17 lead changes.
France, the world’s No. 5 ranked team, got much of its scoring from post-up plays by the 193-cm Sandrine Gruda in the final quarter, but Japan did not back away and responded by draining key 3-pointers down the stretch.
The Akatsuki Five went ahead for good when forward Moeko Nagaoka nailed a 3-pointer to put the team up 72-68 with about 28 seconds left. Shooting guard Saki Hayashi hit both free throws in the closing seconds to seal the win.
Japan head coach Tom Hovasse said after the game that his team started “a little apprehensive” but when the first half ended and the team was only down 36-34, he thought it was “our game to win.”
“I thought we were going to put it into a higher gear in the second half,” said Hovasse, who was with the team as an assistant at the 2016 Rio Games.
“But France was tough, tough on the defensive end. … It was a battle for sure.”
The American bench boss said his squad had “dry spells” offensively, but then had “typhoons” against France in the crucial fourth quarter, referencing a tropical storm that has affected events played outdoors.
“Towards the end, we kind of hit the Tokyo weather that’s going on right now. We hit a typhoon. We’ve finally hit some threes, which in Japanese we say it’s a gaman-no-shiai — it’s a game of patience. It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, and it finally did, thankfully.”
Japan went 11-for-27 from beyond the arc, five of which came in the fourth quarter.
France head coach Valerie Garnier said that every time her squad made defensive mistakes, Japan would respond with 3-pointers.
“We had a lot of difficulty preventing that,” she said.
Japan had 11 different players reach the scoresheet, three of whom noticed double-digit points: Hayashi with 12, Nagaoka with 11 and Takada with 10. Point guard Rui Machida facilitated the offense, dishing out 11 assists in the win.
The home team had 35 points from the bench against France’s 16.
While the players shared the minutes, Takada, who became the oldest female Japanese player to ever compete at the Olympics at age 31, was on the floor for nearly 37 minutes. The 183-cm center was tasked with guarding France’s tallest players and contributed to the win at both ends of the floor.
“I was trying to not allow the players I was matching up with to get the ball too easily,” Takada said. “I let that happen to some extent in the second half, but it was a win that we earned with the entire team, not just me.”
Hovasse said that he has backup inside players for Takada but did not feel comfortable using them yet. But he added that he would need them to step up down the road during the Games.
“I can’t put her out there for 37 minutes every game,” Hovasse said of Takada. “So today, we had to do what was needed in the Olympic tournament. We have a few days to rest so I’m going to use her to win. And she said she was fine. She’s so well-conditioned. Her defense in the low post was phenomenal.”
Hovasse added: “Takada was definitely our MVP today.”
Hovasse and his Japan team had focused on this opening game against France because the result was always going to be extremely important for their chances of advancing to the knockout stage and earning a higher seed.
That partially has to do with the competition format as well. At the Rio Games, each team played five games in the group stage but that was reduced to three at the Tokyo Games, with the top two teams in each group receiving automatic berths to the knockout round.
“So our thoughts going into this game is that we must absolutely win this game,” Hovasse said. “I’m very happy that we were able to do that. So now, we’re going to be looking forward to the next game, looking at videos of the U.S.”
Japan, ranked 10th in the world, will take on the six-time reigning Olympic champions from the U.S. at 1:40 p.m. on Thursday.
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