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Dawn Staley can remember coming to Japan with her South Carolina team, which included star A’Ja Wilson, in 2017, and scrimmaging against the Japanese national team.

She also remembers her team losing by 25 to 30 points.

“Kicked our butts,” Wilson said.

So if anyone knew the challenge Japan posed to the U.S. women’s national basketball team during their game at the Tokyo Olympics on Friday, it was Staley, the U.S. head coach, and Wilson, who are enjoying a much better trip to Japan this time around.

Wilson scored a game-high 20 points and had 10 rebounds, Breanna Stewart and Brittney Griner each had 15 points and Team USA pulled away from Japan after a tight first quarter to pick up an 86-69 win.

The U.S. opened the game on a 10-2 run, only to see Japan fight back and take a two-point lead into the second quarter. The Americans then put the clamps on defensively, as Japan began to miss shots that were falling earlier in the game.

USA's coach Dawn Michelle Staley gestures from the sideline during the women's preliminary round between Japan and USA of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama on Friday. | AFP-JIJI
USA’s coach Dawn Michelle Staley gestures from the sideline during the women’s preliminary round between Japan and USA of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama on Friday. | AFP-JIJI

“Just disrupting and not allowing them to take and make as many 3-point shots uncontested and we just forced them to put the ball on the floor and then our length got involved,” Staley said of her team’s defensive effort. “I was happy that we locked down and got that done.”

Maki Takada finished with 15 points to lead Japan, while Saki Hayashi scored 12 and Monica Okoye had 11.

After shooting 7-for-21 from the 3-point line in the first half, Japan hit just 3 of 17 in the second half.

Japan got good looks, even as the U.S. tightened its defensive pressure, the shots just weren’t falling.

“I thought we did some good things, but I also thought we fell back into some bad habits,” Japan coach Tom Hovasse said. “Everybody on our team has a role and when we get out of sync, they start doing things outside of their roles. I saw a little bit of that today.”

Diana Taurasi of the U.S. (left) and Japan's Maki Takada jump for the ball in their group match at Saitama Super Arena on Friday. | AFP-JIJI
Diana Taurasi of the U.S. (left) and Japan’s Maki Takada jump for the ball in their group match at Saitama Super Arena on Friday. | AFP-JIJI

Japan, which beat France in its opening game, has limited time to fix its issues, with only two preliminary round games remaining.

“We had three prep games and then we played France, so this is our fifth game,” Hovasse said. “Those are the things that you iron out over time, but we don’t have a lot of time. But I did see some of those bad habits come back.

“But I really think that I saw some good stuff that we can definitely grow from.”

Japan tried to take the U.S. out of its comfort zone by pressuring the ball up the floor on defense and with frontcourt players who can knock down 3s.

“Our team isn’t used to being pressed for 40 minutes,” Staley said. “For Sue Bird and all of our guards to be able to take on all that pressure for 40 minutes, for our post players having to guard the 3-point line, they’re so used to getting back in transition guarding the paint, it takes them a while to adjust to stopping at the 3-point line and making sure their player doesn’t get off an open look.

“And their (Japan’s) ability to keep you moving, to keep you occupied. All five players are being occupied out there on the floor. That’s a style of play we’re just not used to playing against all at once.”

The United States led for all but 2 minutes, 23 seconds of the game, but Japan put up a fight.

“They have a style of play which is difficult to play against,” Staley said. “They are calculating when it comes to that, they are disciplined in playing that way, and it’s worked out. I do think they’re in a position to medal here. Just because of their style of play, they’re efficient and they put you back on your heels.

“You saw it out there today. They were always in the game. We still had our starters in to the very end of the game and that’s indicative of knowing that they could explode for a lot of points in a small amount of time.”

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