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Japanese Women's Basketball Team Earns Olympic Berth (March 16, 2004)

The team celebrates its Olympic birth. (Jiji)
The Japanese women's basketball team was the runner-up at the January FIBA ASIA Championship for Women - Sendai, Japan 2004, which doubled as the qualifier for the upcoming summer Olympics in Athens. The performance earned the team its first trip to the Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Games. Japanese women's basketball had been in a slump in recent years compared with other countries in Asia, but its future is now looking considerably brighter.

Spectacular Comeback
At the tournament in January 2004 in Sendai, the Japanese team staged a stunning comeback. Japan faced tough competition in the preliminary round against China, South Korea, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), and Thailand. After defeating Thailand, Japan lost to China, South Korea, and Chinese Taipei to finish with one win and three losses, good enough to sneak into the semifinals in fourth place. However, with only the top three teams earning a trip to Athens, Japan found itself on shaky ground at the conclusion of the preliminary round.

In terms of height, Japan was at a disadvantage. Compared to China, with four players over 190 centimeters (6'3") tall and an average height of 185.7 centimeters (6'1"), and Korea, whose strongly built players averaged 181.5 centimeters (5'11"), Japan's players averaged only 176.5 centimeters (5'9") in height. And though Japan matched up height-wise with Chinese Taipei, they ended up losing that contest 84-82 in the preliminary round.

Japan's opponent in the semifinals was South Korea, the team that had denied Japan passage to the Sydney Olympics in the qualifier at the previous Asian Championships in 1999. Most figured that Japan would surely lose against South Korea, which had gone undefeated in the qualifying round, and wind up having to battle it out for third place and the final ticket to the Olympics in the consolation game.

Subs Take Control
However, Japan defied all predictions with a remarkable performance. Although point guard Kusuda Kahori missed the game due to illness, a group of youngsters, including Yabuuchi Natsumi, Tachikawa Masami, Eguchi Maki, and Yano Ryoko, who poured in 34 points, and veteran role players sparked the team. With Japan displaying its patented quick passing and fast break, the teams ended regulation tied at 56 points. They remained knotted up at 65 after the first overtime, sending the game into double overtime, where, with 30 seconds left on the clock, Yano drained a clutch game-winning three-pointer. The hometown crowd of 4,000 then counted down the waning seconds of the dramatic victory.

Center Hamaguchi Noriko, 30, who competed at the Atlanta Olympics eight years ago, was overwhelmed by the outcome. She explains, "I intended to give it my all and lead my teammates to Athens, but instead it was the younger players who carried us." Head coach Utsumi Tomohide, who had hoped before the tournament that his team would peak in the semifinals, was moved to tears. "The team played this game with the will to win that is so vital to competition," he said. Although Japan lost to China in the finals after earning its Olympic berth, the team's performance in the semifinals exceeded all expectations.

A Voice of Experience
In gearing up for the Athens Olympics, Japan enlisted Atlanta Olympic star Hagiwara Mikiko to serve as an assistant coach. She is the first female to work in that capacity for the women's team. Hagiwara, who played in the US Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) following the Atlanta Olympics, put her graduation from Waseda University on hold for a year for one more opportunity to experience the excitement of the Olympics, this time as a coach. At a training camp prior to the ASIA Championship, she provided video footage of Japan's seventh-place finish at the Atlanta Games to instill in the players a sense of purpose. "These players were high school students back then. I want to acquaint them with a feeling that can only be experienced at the Olympics."

Taking Aim at the Top Eight
Athens will be the third Olympic appearance for the Japanese women's basketball team, which finished fifth at the 1976 Games in Montreal and seventh at the Atlanta Olympics 20 years later. Following the ASIA Championship, the groupings for the 12 women's teams heading to the Olympics were determined. Japan will be in group A with Russia, Australia, Brazil, Nigeria, and host-nation Greece, with the top four teams advancing to the quarterfinals. "Japan's players are small, but I hope to instill more speed and defensive skill, play our own style, and advance to the best eight," said an enthusiastic Utsumi.

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FIBA ASIA Championship for Women - Sendai, Japan 2004

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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