The Akatsuki Five are heading to the Olympics final four after a dramatic victory in the final seconds.
Japan came through in crunch time, edging Belgium 86-85 in their quarterfinal game at Saitama Super Arena on Wednesday.
With 15 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Japan shooting guard Saki Hayashi knocked down a game-winning 3-pointer and the team hung on to a one-point lead until the final buzzer.
The Akatsuki Five, which had never won in their two quarterfinal attempts at the Olympics, now move to the final-four round with a medal on the line against the winner of Wednesday night’s France-Spain contest.
“Being the first to do something is always fun,” Japan head coach Tom Hovasse said after the game. “Nobody can ever take that away from you. So we’re ecstatic. I told the girls in the locker room, ‘Be ecstatic tonight. Just let your hair down.’
But Hovasse said that the team would have its work cut out for it very soon.
“Tomorrow we have to start again with a France or Spain breakdown and our work is not done,” he added. “It’s going to be a test for us to get everybody’s mind back into a proper space. … But that’s something that we’re going to have to deal with because we’re not just happy being here. We want to win two more games.”
Throughout the game, Japan struggled to slow down Belgium’s Emma Meesseman and Kim Mestdagh, who would score a game-high 24 points each, allowing the Europeans to build a lead as big as 13 points by the middle of the third quarter.
But the hosts patiently whittled down their deficit and successfully tied the game at 75 when Yuki Miyazawa nailed a 3-pointer with less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
After Belgium went ahead 81-77 with less than two minutes left, Juie Vanloo was called for an unsportsman-like foul for grabbing Japan guard Rui Machida while she was driving the lane.
The foul rekindled Japan’s fire, giving them a bit of momentum in the final minutes of the game.
Belgium had taken an 85-83 lead with a pair of successful free throws by Julie Allemand, leaving 37 seconds on the clock. But Hayashi connected for the game-winner after she dodged Mestdagh’s block with a fake from near the top of the key.
After its final timeout, Belgium looked to at least tie the game, but a jumper by Mestdagh did not go into the net.
“There were opportunities,” Mestdagh said. “I know when you are up against Japan by (13 points), it does not mean anything. We knew they were going to fight back somehow. But there were things we could have done better in the fourth quarter — some lazy turnovers, maybe. And we did not react well to their aggressiveness.”
Hovasse described the game as one that saw “so many peaks and valleys.”
“It’s hard to put into words how hard we were hanging onto the cliff by a fingernail in the fourth quarter,” he said. “We just came up with plays that just kept us alive for the next possession and towards the middle of the fourth quarter, we really ramped up our defense and got a lot more aggressive. And I think that took them out of their comfort zone a little bit.”
Japan forward Yuki Miyazawa, who played as a starter for the first time this tournament, hit seven 3-pointers and led the team with 21 points. Captain Maki Takada followed with 19 points.
One game after she tied for a single-game Olympic record in assists with 15 against Nigeria, Japan point guard Rui Machida nearly matched that with 14 assists, completing a double-double by adding 10 points.
The up-and-down game saw 13 lead changes and had the two teams tied seven times. Japan had a 12-point lead in the early second quarter but Belgium answered back to put themselves in the lead at the end of the first half.
“I feel relieved to have won,” said Miyazawa, who was part of the national team that competed at the 2016 Rio Games. “I feel great to have made seven 3-point shots. But I made some turnovers, let them grab rebounds and let them attack when I was not supposed to. So we would like to get into our next game, correcting those issues.
“But I’m happy that I can play with these teammates for another game and feel relieved to have won.”
Japan will compete in its semifinal game Friday at 8 p.m.
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