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Japan Edges China in a Tense FIBA Asia Cup Qualifier

The win in the opening round of FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers was Japan's first over China in a major men's basketball competition since the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Qualifying for the 2025 FIBA Asia Cup is the Japan men's basketball national team's next objective. Head coach Tom Hovasse's squad took a big step in that direction with a historic win on Sunday, February 25.

Japan improved to 2-0 in Group C first-round qualifiers with a 76-73 triumph over China at Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo. On Thursday, Japan routed Guam 77-56 at the same venue.

About that historic reference above: This was the Japan men's team's first victory over China in a major continental or global tournament since 1936.

Back in 1936, at the Berlin Summer Olympics, Japan defeated China 35-19 decades before the advent of the 3-point shot. China emerged as Asia's premier powerhouse team in men's basketball, winning 14 of 16 FIBA Asia Cups between 1975 and 2005.

And now? Japan, which qualified to play in the 12-team tournament at the 2024 Paris Olympics, is ranked 26th in the world. China, which did not qualify to compete in the French capital, is 29th.

Akatsuki Japan players react after beating China. (FIBA.BASKETBALL)

On Sunday, the points piled up a lot quicker at Ariake Coliseum than they did in Germany in 1936. Akatsuki Japan, as the men's and women's national hoop teams are known, triumphed in a nailbiter that went down to the wire.

China's Junlong Zhu missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Reaction to Japan's Victory in the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifier

"That was a great win for us," Hovasse proclaimed in the postgame news conference. "I told the team after the game this type of win against a really quality team really raises everybody's confidence a little bit. It's a step along the process that we're going through right now, which is Paris, and it's a big step towards our goal."

The coach then said, "I was really glad we could pull it out. It was a tough one." 

FIBA Asia Cup
Japan coach Tom Hovasse guides his team against China. (FIBA.BASKETBALL)

In the teams' most recent matches in a major event, China swept Japan in a pair of 2022 FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers, winning 90-84 and 66-57 on June 16 and 19, 2021.

Sunday standout Yudai Baba, who led Japan with 24 points, including 4-for-6 from 3-point range, and played a team-high 37-plus minutes, echoed Hovasse's view. With a smile, he declared that it was a significant triumph for the team.

"It was our first win [against China] after 88 years and as coach said, it was a great win today," said Baba, who also plays for the B.League's Nagasaki Velca

FIBA Asia Cup
Versatile veteran Yudai Baba runs the offense against China. (FIBA.BASKETBALL)

Beyond the history of China dominating Japan for decades in men's basketball, Baba also saw another positive trait emerge in this clash.

"One of the positives of this game was that we were able to play physically throughout the whole game, for 40 minutes," he told reporters.

FIBA Asia Cup
Japan big man Josh Hawkinson (24) defends as China point guard Mingxuan Hu looks to score inside. (FIBA.BASKETBALL)

Key Performers for Japan

Along with Baba's notable scoring effort, Japan big man Josh Hawkinson, who plies his craft for the Sunrockers Shibuya, finished with a double-double (14 points and 13 rebounds). Point guard Yuki Kawamura (Yokohama B-Corsairs), the B.League's reigning MVP, also made a solid impact with 12 points, four rebounds and three assists. Backcourt leader Yuki Togashi (Chiba Jets) chipped in with eight points.

Looking back on the game, Kawamura, who is 22 and plays with a level of poise beyond his years, pinpointed "game control" and "handling the pressure" as two keys for his team during many of the crucial moments against China.

A smiling Hawkinson insisted that the victory was an important part of the "step-by-step" team growth. 

Asked by a reporter about his high-energy play, which included a steal and a dunk with 1:09 left in the fourth quarter to give Japan a 75-70 lead, the Washington State alum quickly summed it up without a hint of braggadocio by saying, "It's my job."

On that aforementioned dunk, Hawkinson helped lift Japan when it needed a bucket. Teammate Soichiro Inoue missed three consecutive free throws with 1:25 remaining. And then, after Hawkinson's alert defensive play led to a scoring chance, a three-point lead stretched to five. 

With cheers of delight for that play (and many others throughout the game), the crowd of 9,191 on a rainy winter afternoon warmed up the arena.

Sixteen of the 24 Asian nations currently participating in the first round of qualifying will advance to the tourney, which will be held in August 2025 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. And after February's window of games, qualifiers will resume in November 2024 and February 2025.

FIBA Asia Cup
China's Jinqiu Hu in action against Japan. (FIBA.BASKETBALL)

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China's Top Performers and Additional Game Details

For China, 210-cm center Jinqiu Hu had a team-high 23 points on 10-for-13 shooting. Teammate Minqxuan Hu, a point guard who plays professionally for the Guangdong Southern Tigers, poured in 20 points. Veteran forward Abudushalamu Abudurexti, an ethnic Uyghur, was China's third-leading scorer with a seven-point effort.

The rest of the Chinese squad scored a combined 23 points.

China outrebounded Japan 44-33. But Japan, playing tight, aggressive defense throughout the match, held the visitors to 26-for-66 shooting (39.4%), including 8-for-29 on 3-point attempts. China was 13-for-15 on free-throw attempts.

And although China held Japan to 22-for-60 from the field, the hosts made more 3-pointers (11-for-32) and had a strong showing at the foul line (21-for-27) despite late struggles there.

Serbian bench boss Aleksandar Djordjevic, who became China's coach in 2022, praised his opponent after Sunday's showdown.

"They took advantage of their home court [and] they imposed their aggressiveness in certain moments of the game," Djordjevic said. "With the traps, we knew it was coming. They were super aggressive, they created a lot of problems in our execution."

Case in point: China had 15 assists and 10 turnovers in the high-pressure environment.

"Nevertheless we had a chance to tie the game and we had a chance to decide the game with the last shot," Djordjevic noted. 

Japan point guard Yuki Togashi drives to the basket. (FIBA.BASKETBALL)

Japan Rebounds After a Slow Start

After falling behind 14-3 early in the first quarter, Japan found its rhythm at both ends of the court. 

An 11-0 Akatsuki Japan scoring spurt capped by an Inoue 3-pointer from the right corner and knotted the score at 14-all at the 3:09 mark of the opening period. Hawkinson initiated the run with an offensive rebound and a putback, ending a Japan scoring drought that lasted for more than 5 minutes.

Japan had taken its first lead of the game, 3-2, on a Baba 3-pointer via a crisp pass from Makoto Hiejima on its first possession. It proved to be a good omen for the hosts.

"They're a team who bases their game on shooting 3-pointers out of the creations of their quick guards, and I think tonight Yudai Baba was exceptional," the China coach commented later.

China led 20-19 after the first quarter, and the teams traded baskets in the second stanza.

FIBA Asia Cup
Japan guard Makoto Hiejima defends China guard Jiwei Zhao. (FIBA.BASKETBALL)

Entering the third quarter, the scoreboard showed: Japan 38, China 38. Baba was Japan's high scorer in the first half with nine points.

Late in the third quarter, Hovasse's squad extended its lead to 55-46 on a Togashi 3-pointer, with backup point guard Kai Toews (Alvark Tokyo) registering one of his team-high four assists on the play. But China pulled to within 55-51 entering the final period.

Japan held a 71-63 advantage with 3:35 left in the game, but China initiated a comeback that fell just short.

A view from the stands during the FIBA Asia Cup qualifier. (FIBA.BASKETBALL)

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Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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