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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Japan Women's Basketball Team Faces a Must-Win Game to Qualify for the Paris Olympics

The Japan women's basketball team needs to defeat Canada in its final qualifier to secure a spot in the 12-team tournament at the Paris Games.

Each Olympic cycle represents new challenges and new opportunities. For example, despite a basketball team's success at a previous Olympics (even for the previous silver or bronze medalist), there's no guarantee it will book a spot in the next Olympic tournament.

Such is the case for the Japan women's national team, which earned the silver medal at the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics in August 2021. It was a breakthrough performance on the global stage for Akatsuki Japan.

That was then, this is now.

Unlike some rapidly expanding events such as the FIFA World Cup (increasing to 48 teams for the 2026 extravaganza from 32 in 2022), both the men's and women's Olympic basketball tournaments only feature 12 national squads.

Entering February 2024, two nations had automatic berths for the women's tournament, which starts in late July, at the Paris Olympics: the United States, winner of the 2022 FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup, and France as the host nation.

From Thursday through Sunday, February 8-11, the other 10 spots were up for grabs at a quartet of sites (in China, Belgium, Brazil and Hungary) during the FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

Japan was assigned to compete for a spot in the Paris Games in Sopron, Hungary, with three games over the four-day stretch.

Japan center Maki Takada, a two-time Olympian, competes against Hungary on February 9. (KYODO)

How the Japan Women's Basketball Team Has Fared in Hungary

In its opening game on Thursday, Japan, ranked ninth in the world, defeated No 4 Spain 86-75.

Saki Hayashi and Evelyn Mawuli paced the winners with 20 points apiece. Mai Yamamoto added 15 points.

On Friday, a victory would have clinched a spot for Japan in the Paris tournament. But world No 19 Hungary upset Japan 81-75.

That created a logjam entering the final day of qualifying in Hungary. World No 5 Canada, Japan, Hungary and Spain all have 1-1 records. Furthermore, three of the teams in Hungary will advance to the Olympics.

Against Hungary, Yamamoto and Saori Miyazaki led Japan with 15 points apiece. Veteran center Maki Takada chipped in with 14 points and Hayashi had 11.

On Sunday, Japan meets Canada and Hungary takes on Spain. The Japan-Canada match is set to tip off at 11 PM JST.

In their most recent matchup in Sydney, Canada beat Japan 70-56 at the 2022 FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup.

Japan women's basketball national team head coach Toru Onzuka encourages his players in an Olympic qualifying match against Hungary on February 9 in Sopron, Hungary. (KYODO)

Disappointment After Losing to Hungary

For Japan head coach Toru Onzuka, who replaced former national team bench boss Tom Hovasse after the Tokyo Olympics, Friday's defeat was disappointing and created a sense of urgency heading into the clash with Canada.

"We really wanted to win. I'm very frustrated," Onzuka told reporters, according to Kyodo News. "We let them get on a roll and play comfortably, using the home advantage."

Onzuka added, "We'll look to play Japan's style of basketball throughout the 40 minutes against Canada."

Speaking to reporters, Miyazaki said, "I'm disappointed that we lost. But we still have a game against Canada, so I want to switch things up and do my best."

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University of Nebraska's Keisei Tominaga in action against the University of Illinois on February 4 in Champaign, Illinois. (NEBRASKA ATHLETICS)

Tominaga Establishes a New Career-High Scoring Mark in Overtime Loss

University of Nebraska senior guard Keisei Tominaga scored a career-high 31 points against the 14th-ranked University of Illinois on Sunday, February 4. Tominaga sank 5 of 7 3-point attempts in the visiting Cornhuskers' 87-84 overtime loss.

Nebraska then dropped a 80-67 road decision to Northwestern University on Wednesday. Tominaga had 11 points in the loss.

The Nagoya native has scored 20 or more points in five games this season. His previous career-best scoring total was 30 points versus Penn State on February 5, 2023.

The Cornhuskers (17-8, 7-7 in the Big Ten Conference) bounced back with a 79-59 home win over the University of Michigan on Saturday, February 10. Tominaga had a team-best 19 points.

Los Angeles Dodgers newcomer Shohei Ohtani speaks to reporters on February 9 in Glendale, Arizona. (KYODO)


Upbeat Ohtani Making Preparations for the 2024 MLB Season

Shohei Ohtani is getting ready for his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The two-time American League MVP arrived at Camelback Ranch, the team's spring training complex, in Glendale, Arizona, on Thursday, February 9 with a fresh outlook.

"I'm on a brand new team so I'm going to act like I'm a rookie and try to get along with all the guys," Ohtani said through an interpreter, according to the Los Angeles Times.

It's interesting to note that Ohtani, one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet, plans to make a concerted effort to greet his new teammates and team employees during spring training. The Dodgers are scheduled to hold their first full squad workout of the spring on Wednesday, February 14.

"I like to go up and say, 'Hi,' introduce myself," Ohtani was quoted as saying by the Los Angeles Times. "But there are so many new people that I have to make sure I don't introduce myself twice. If I do, hopefully, they'll let it go."

After undergoing offseason surgery on his right elbow, Ohtani is preparing to serve as a designated hitter in 2024 and then make his comeback as a pitcher a year later.

On Thursday, Ohtani, who led the American League with 44 home runs in 2023, shared his thoughts on getting ready for the upcoming season.

"The intensity is already near 100 percent," Ohtani commented, referring to his swing, according to Kyodo News. "I'll soon proceed to batting against a hitting machine and actual pitches. It's not the first time. I did similarly in 2019 [after undergoing Tommy John surgery after the 2018 season], I know the process to a degree and I believe it'll go smoother this time."


Kubota Spears' Hiroyuki Yamasaki scores a second-half try against Super Rugby's Chiefs in an exhibition match on February 10 at Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium. (ⒸSANKEI)


New Zealand Teams Dominate in Exhibition Series Against League One Opponents

The Cross-Border Rugby series, featuring New Zealand's Chiefs and Eagles and Japan Rugby League One's Kubota Spears, Yokohama Canon Eagles, Saitama Wild Knights and Tokyo Sungoliath, wrapped up on Saturday, February 10.

On the final day of the exhibition series, Super Rugby's Blues, who are based in Auckland, pounded the Eagles 57-22 at NHK Spring Mitsuzawa Football Stadium (commonly called Nippatsu Mitsuzawa Stadium).

Caleb Clarke, who also competes for New Zealand's All Blacks, sparked the Blues with three tries in the rout.

Also on Saturday, in the latter match, the Waikato-based Chiefs topped the Spears 35-30 at Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium.

On February 3, the Blues routed the Sungoliath 43-7. A day later, the Wild Knights recorded a 38-14 triumph over the Chiefs at Kumagaya Rugby Stadium.

The 2024 Super Rugby season starts on February 23. It features five teams apiece from Australia and New Zealand, one from Fiji and a Pacific Islands squad.

Inter Miami's Lionel Messi moves with the ball against Vissel Kobe in a friendly at National Stadium in Tokyo on February 7. (Issei Kato/REUTERS)


Messi Plays 30 Minutes in Exhibition Match in Tokyo

After missing Major League Soccer club Inter Miami's exhibition match against a select Hong Kong team on Sunday, February 4 in Hong Kong due to a hamstring injury, Lionel Messi returned to action against reigning J.League champion Vissel Kobe three days later.

The Argentine soccer great entered the match as a 60th-minute substitute and played for 30 minutes at Tokyo's National Stadium. Vissel won 4-3 in a penalty shootout on Wednesday after the second half ended in a scoreless draw.

Inter Miami manager Gerardo Martino told reporters he felt comfortable giving the 36-year-old Messi playing time after watching him practice on the previous day.

"In the training yesterday afternoon, he said he was feeling good. We decided then that he would play for 30 minutes," Martino said, according to Agence France-Presse. 

Vissel meet Kawasaki Frontale in the Fujifilm Super Cup at National Stadium on Saturday, February 17, six days before the 2024 J.League campaign kicks off with a pair of matches (Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs Urawa Reds and Nagoya Grampus vs Kashima Antlers).

American Football

NFL Cheerleader Honda Launches Fundraiser to Help Pay for Healthcare Costs After Being Diagnosed with Breast Cancer

For six seasons (2018-23), Tokyo native Keiko Honda enthusiastically served as a Jacksonville Jaguars cheerleader. She achieved her dream to become an NFL cheerleader after previously cheering for men's pro basketball teams, including the Yokohama B-Corsairs and the Sunrockers Shibuya, in Japan.

Honda recently announced she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. She launched a GoFundMe campaign to help offset the medical costs. 

On the fundraiser's website, Honda wrote, "Even though I have been depending on a lot of people's kindness and help, I have tried my best not to ask for financial support.

"However, considering all the costs for tests and exams I've had, the surgery cost, the cost of chemotherapy and radiation therapy after the surgery, the cost for receiving hormone therapy to prevent metastasis and/or recurrence for [the] next 5 years, and of the cost of insurance, it has come to my attention that I must reach out for community support to get through this next chapter."

She added: "I am 41 years old and cheerleader activities are everything to me. My dream is to have a successful surgery, to make a full recovery, and to audition and get back on the big stage as a cheerleader again."

On Friday, February 9, Honda underwent surgery. She provided a positive update in the comments section on her GoFundMe page.

"I'm baaaaack! The surgery was a success!" she wrote, adding, "Thank you for your big support! Stay strong! I have lots of my cheerleaders [supporting me]!"

Moyuka Uchijima in a June 2023 file photo. (SI.ROBI/CC BY-SA 2.0/via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)


Uchijima Falls in Mumbai Open Quarterfinals

Moyuka Uchijima dropped her quarterfinal match against Dutch opponent Arianne Hartono at the WTA's Mumbai Open on Friday, February 9, falling 6-4, 6-3.

World No 151 Uchijima reached the quarterfinals by beating Hungary's Dalma Galfi 6-2, 6-1 in the round of 16 on Thursday.

Uchijima won the women's singles title at an International Tennis Federation tournament in Pune, India, on January 28. A native of Kuala Lumpur born to a Malaysian mother and a Japanese father, Uchijima, 22, earned her ninth career title, topping Australia's Tina Nadine Smith 6-4, 6-0 in the final.

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 Twitter @ed_odeven.



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