The Japanese women’s basketball team has already shocked the world with its miraculous run. Now the Akatsuki Five will look to offer another surprise as it seeks to take home the coveted gold medal on the very final day of the Tokyo Olympics.
The team will return to Saitama Super Arena for one last time — to square off against the six-time reigning champ U.S. with top honors on the line Sunday.
Two days after making it past the quarterfinals for the first time with a nail-biting win over the world No. 6 Belgium, Japan kept up its inexorable march with another upset win, this time posting an 87-71 victory over France in the semifinals on Friday night.
“We did it,” Japan captain and center Maki Takada said after the game. “I’m too happy to put it into words. It really feels great that we can compete on the stage with the gold medal on the line, which has been our goal.”
The previous best Olympic finish for the Japanese women’s team, which now sits at No. 10 in the world, was fifth at the 1976 Montreal Games.
The hosts started their Olympic journey with a 74-70 win over the No. 5-ranked France in their opening group-stage game and did not let the Europeans avenge the loss — eliminating them with a convincing victory in the second game.
On Friday, Japan looked sluggish in the first quarter but regained their momentum from the second on, taking advantage of their speed and 3-point shooting.
France, likely suffering from fatigue due to the schedule, lacked the sharpness of earlier games and couldn’t keep up with Japan’s fast-paced game that allowed it to establish a lead of as many as 27 points in the mid-fourth quarter.
Although the French team managed to close the gap with consecutive baskets toward the end of the fourth, the effort ultimately proved too little, too late.
Young guard Himawari Akaho shined at both ends of the court, leading Japan with 17 points and seven rebounds. Forward Yuki Miyazawa, meanwhile, again put her opponents on the back foot with her long shooting, knocking down three 3-pointers for 14 points in the game.
Point guard Rui Machida continued her passing magic for the Akatsuki Five. She came up with nine assists in the first half alone and added nine more to renew a single-game Olympic record that she had tied in Japan’s 102-83 win over Nigeria on Monday.
All 12 players on the Japan roster scored at least a point, with the team going 11-for-22 from behind the 3-point line and outrebounding France, which was an average of 9 cm taller than Japan, 36-33.
Center Sandrine Gruda, a former WNBA champion with the Los Angeles Sparks, had a game-high 18 points yet was held to just three rebounds.
“The first quarter, we ended it really bad. We were down by eight points,” coach Tom Hovasse said. “And the players kind of flipped the switch. I felt like we started a little slow, maybe tired. And the players realized we’ve got to take care of our business. And they did it (with the way) we played today. I think it was by far the best game that we’ve had.”
The American added: “We were doing the things that we’ve been practicing for months.”
Japan’s phenomenal Olympic run has already seen a goal that Hovasse and his players hammered out when he took over as bench boss for the national team in 2017.
“Four-and-a-half years ago, at my press conference, I said my goal or my dream is to play America in the gold medal game in the Tokyo Olympics,” Hovasse said. “And we’re going to win. That was my dream-slash-goal-slash-motivation. Everybody was laughing and not really paying attention. But I think they are now, especially if we can pull it off.”
Japan will likely be a heavy underdog against the U.S., to whom it fell 86-69 in their Group B game on July 30. In the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics, it was demolished 110-64 by the Americans.
This time, though, Japan will not be taking the court merely to make memories. Nor will it be content to take home a silver medal.
“We lost to (the U.S.) once during the group stage and want to avenge that,” Machida said. “We all know they are a great team but we believe they are not a team that we have no chance at beating.”
Takada said the next match was sure to be pedal to the metal as her team seeks to maintain its fast-paced style.
“We know we can’t beat (the U.S.) so easily, but we’ll play as a team,” she said. “We want to run as much as we can until we run out of the gas.”
Hovasse emphasized the importance of believing in oneself and that this had led the squad to the gold medal game.
“I believe in the word, ‘belief,’” said Hovasse, who was an assistant during the Rio Games. “If the players do not believe the head coach, what the head coach says, then we can’t accomplish anything. And I wholeheartedly believe that we’re able to get the gold medal.”
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