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With their quarterfinal win over Belgium on Wednesday, the Akatsuki Five officially pronounced themselves as the Cinderella team of the women’s Olympic basketball tournament.

The dramatic 86-85 victory has Japan in the Olympic semifinals and eyeing its first-ever basketball medal.

Ahead of the Games, many Japanese basketball writers had crossed the team off their medal-contender lists because they thought the squad would not have enough talent to compete with the world’s best. Ramu Tokashiki, 193-cms-tall and a former member of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, did not make the squad due to a torn ACL, and other stars that competed at the Rio Olympics hung up their sneakers in recent years.

The team’s lack of size was another reason the media largely wrote the team off. Japan is the second shortest of the 12 teams in the Olympics with an average height of 176 cm, with only Puerto Rico having a shorter squad.

But Japan has continued to believe in itself and has shocked the world with its small-ball way of competing, using speed, 3-point shooting and tenacious defense to turn heads at the Games.

“We are a small team, but we are the smallest team in every tournament,” Japan head coach Tom Hovasse said after the Belgium game. “So that’s not something that we are thinking about. And we all know that, of course. So it’s not a problem. We have the speed. And if we have the speed and have the space to make shots, and we can use those, then we have the opportunity to win. This is something that is always true in all of our tournaments.”

The hosts averaged the second-highest number of points scored with 82.8 points per game, behind only the United States, and their 39.4% shooting from the 3-point line is the best mark in the tournament. At the other end of the spectrum, their 32.2 rebounds per game is tied for last along with Puerto Rico.

Japan's Maki Takada (center) and Yuki Miyazawa celebrate after the Akatsuki Five topped Belgium in the women's quarterfinals. | AFP-JIJI
Japan’s Maki Takada (center) and Yuki Miyazawa celebrate after the Akatsuki Five topped Belgium in the women’s quarterfinals. | AFP-JIJI

Out of the four games it has played so far — three of them wins — Japan has had three different leading scorers in Saki Hayashi, Maki Takada and Yuki Miyazawa, a clear sign of the team’s depth and lack of reliance on one superstar.

“Each of us understands our roles very well,” point guard Rui Machida said. “That’s why we’re successful as a team.”

Hovasse, who had a two-game stint with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, played for two different clubs in Japan as a forward in the 1990s. And in 2010, he started serving as an assistant for the Women’s Japan Basketball League’s Jx Sunflowers, now the Eneos Sunflowers.

For over a decade, he has been associated with the country’s women’s hoops squads and has now put his team in a position to accomplish something unprecedented: a medal win.

“I was lucky enough 10, 11 years ago to join a club team here,” said the Colorado native, who took over the post in 2017. “And I was amazed. The level of dedication that these girls have, it’s off the charts. It really is off the charts. It’s amazing. I have an amazing job, I’m coaching 12 gym rats. They just want to be in the gym all the time. And it’s been a crazy ride. When I was an assistant at Rio, I think we really started gaining respect from other countries at that time.”

Hovasse recalled, however, that his team wasn’t convinced they had what it took to be the best in the world in Rio.

“They didn’t know how good they were,” he said. “And I wanted to build the belief. The belief is something I say every day. It’s the belief and they just didn’t realize how good they were. And I think I brought that out. And I wanted to raise standards of those beliefs, just raise them across the board.

“And it’s been a crazy four or five years (since) I got this job. I think I’ve (said) this a couple of times when I got this job. At my press conference, I said my dream is to beat America in the Tokyo Olympics in the championship game. Everybody laughed at me.”

Japan fell 86-69 to the U.S. during the group stage. But if both teams beat their respective semifinal opponents, with Japan facing France and the U.S. battling Serbia, the two will meet again on Sunday – the final day of the Games.

“I’ve told all these players and everybody in the locker room to believe that,” Hovasse said of the team being able to beat anyone. “And if you have that belief in each other, if you have that belief in yourself, if you have that belief in the staff, you can do a lot of things.”

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