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Japan Women Edge Canada to Book a Spot in Paris Olympics

Mai Yamamoto and Evelyn Mawuli sparked Japan with 21 points apiece in a narrow victory over Canada in Hungary to punch a ticket to the Paris Olympics.

It all came down to the last day of qualifying. The Japan women's basketball national team needed a victory over Canada on Sunday, February 11 in Sopron, Hungary, to clinch one of 12 tournament berths for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Mission accomplished. Akatsuki Japan earned a gritty 86-82 win over Canada on the final day of the 2024 FIBA Olympic Women's Qualifying Tournament. China, Belgium and Brazil also hosted qualifiers from February 8-11. 

And now the 12-team field is set: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, France, Germany, Tokyo 2020 runner-up Japan, Nigeria, Puerto Rico, Serbia, Spain and the defending Olympic champion United States.

In an inspired, determined performance, Japan coach Toru Onzuka's squad bounced back from a disappointing 81-75 defeat to Hungary on Friday. Mai Yamamoto and Evelyn Mawuli paced world No 9 Japan with 21 points apiece.

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Japan starting center Maki Takada and head coach Toru Onzuka celebrate after the team's victory over Canada. (FIBA.BASKETBALL)

"I would like to thank the fans who were watching inside the arena and also the fans watching on TV in Japan," Onzuka commented after the back-and-forth match, one that had 12 lead changes.

The coach added, "I also want to thank Canada as they are such a tough team to beat. [And] I am so happy also."

Japan led 50-46 at halftime.

Yamamoto Named Sopron Tournament MVP

Yamamoto, a 24-year-old guard for the WJBL's Toyota Antelopes, was named MVP of the Sopron tournament, averaging 17.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting 62% from the field in Japan's three games.

The rising star gushed with joy after the final buzzer.

"Of course I am so happy," Yamamoto told reporters. "We played together for 40 minutes as a team."

What were Yamamoto's general impressions of the game?

"Canada was also a strong team, so we expected a difficult game," she said, according to Kyodo News. "Everyone believed in each other and fought with determination."

Summing up the team's performance in the high-pressure contest, Yamamoto acknowledged it took a cohesive team effort to accomplish its goal.

"We had to win, so I'm glad we all battled together to get this result," Yamamoto was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. "This is just the start. We want to go to an even higher level and win gold at the Paris Olympics."

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Mai Yamamoto averaged 17.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists in the Olympic qualifying tournament. (FIBA.BASKETBALL)

The Game was Up for Grabs in the Final Minute

With 41 seconds remaining against Canada, Yamamoto's layup gave Japan an 85-80 lead. 

Canada's Kayla Alexander, who finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds, pulled her team within three on a layup with 32 seconds to play.

Yamamoto then made the first of two free-throw attempts with 17 seconds left to account for the final margin.

Canada's Sami Hill missed a layup with 12 seconds remaining and teammate Aislinn Konig's 3-point attempt was off the mark with 3 seconds left. Tokyo 2020 Olympian Evelyn Mawuli grabbed the defensive rebound on the final play of the game.

Bridget Carleton led Canada with 19 points and Nirra Fields poured in 17. Canada was held to 3-for-13 shooting from 3-point range and had 14 assists with 15 turnovers.

Japan helped its cause considerably with a 19-for-21 effort at the free-throw line. In addition, Onzuka's team chalked up 16 assists against four turnovers.

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Veteran forward Evelyn Mawuli competes against Canada. (FIBA.BASKETBALL)

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A Ticket to Paris Olympics: Evelyn Mawuli Makes a Big Difference for Japan

A child of immigrants from Ghana who was born in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture and became a naturalized Japanese citizen at age 14, Evelyn Mawuli sparked Japan with 20 points in its tourney-opening, 86-75 win over Spain on Thursday, February 8. After scoring just one point in the loss to Hungary, the 28-year-old made a major impact against Canada in 23-plus minutes (along with her aforementioned 21 points, she had five rebounds, two assists and a block).

Hours later, Mawuli shared the excitement she and her teammates felt on social media. 

In a post on X (formerly Twitter) in Japanese, Mawuli wrote: "Everyone in Japan! Good morning. So much support, really, really. Thank you so much. [Japan's] women's basketball [team] is going to Paris!" 

After the game, Canada coach Victor Lapena reflected on his team's 40-minute clash with Japan.

"Congratulations to Japan. They are a great team and played amazing today, finding solutions," Lapena told reporters. "Special congratulations to Evelyn Mawuli. She was the difference in this game. I am proud of my team and for all they did today."

Evelyn's younger sister, Stephanie Mawuli, 25, contributed eight points off the bench.

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Japan forward Stephanie Mawuli looks to score inside against Canada. (FIBA.BASKETBALL)

Paris Olympics
Japan playmaker Saori Miyazaki attacks the basket against Canada. She had her tournament-best scoring effort (16 points) in the game. (FIBA.BASKETBALL)

Overall Team Productivity Ignites Japan

Three-fifths of Japan's starting lineup for the 2020 Olympic final against Team USA stepped onto the court for the opening tipoff on Sunday against world No 5 Canada: Center Maki Takada, shooting guard Saki Hayashi and forward Himawari Akaho. They had a combined 16 points versus Canada.

Another Tokyo 2020 team member, guard Saori Miyazaki, had 16 points and four assists for Japan. Along with Yamamoto, Miyazaki was also named to the all-tournament team in Sopron.

Veteran point guard Asami Yoshida, a member of Japan's 2016 Rio Olympic squad, contributed a team-high five assists in 14-plus minutes.

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Japan point guard Asami Yoshida runs the offense as Canada's Sami Hill defends. (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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