Basketball: Japan beats Cape Verde at World Cup, earns Olympic berth

FIBA Basketball World Cup co-host Japan punched its ticket to the 2024 Paris Olympics after holding on for an 80-71 victory over Cape Verde on Saturday.

Big man Josh Hawkinson contributed 29 points and seven rebounds as world No. 36 Japan secured direct qualification to the Olympics by finishing as Asia’s top World Cup performer with a 3-2 record.

Japan took a 73-55 lead into the final break at Okinawa Arena before threatening to collapse late in the classification game against No. 64 Cape Verde, which won the fourth quarter 16-7.

Livewire guard Keisei Tominaga provided vital energy and three-point shooting for head coach Tom Hovasse’s team as he added 22 points in 18 minutes off the bench.

Towering center Edy Tavares had 11 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks for Cape Verde, which finished 1-4 after becoming the smallest nation to play at the World Cup.

Akatsuki Japan led 50-37 at the main break after Tominaga poured in 16 first-half points on 6-from-6 shooting, including 4-from-4 from beyond the arc.

The fired-up home crowd erupted in the second minute of the game when Phoenix Suns wing Yuta Watanabe dunked on a fast break, earning a three-point play that gave Japan a 5-2 lead.

Japan trailed 19-17 at the start of the second before going up 20-19 on Hawkinson’s layup. With guards Tominaga and Yuki Kawamura leading the charge, they began extending the lead as the African side struggled to defend in the open court.

The arena was ready to celebrate the win before Cape Verde opened the fourth quarter on a storming 13-0 run, closing the gap to 73-68 with 3:38 remaining.

American-born forward-center Hawkinson came up big on both ends of the floor in the remaining minutes to steer his team home, blocking a shot, drawing two fouls, and scoring six straight points, including a clutch three that made it 80-71 with 20 seconds left.

“I had goosebumps from the moment I stepped on the court,” Hawkinson said. “I’m so glad I made that last three-pointer, and I’m so proud of this team.”

Hovasse praised his players for holding their nerve down the stretch against a Cape Verde side that had punched above its weight to finish third in Group F.

“That was a tough fourth quarter. They really gutted it out and kept fighting until the very end,” said Hovasse, who had outlined Japan’s goal of securing direct Olympic qualification before the tournament.

“We all decided on the goal and had confidence that we could achieve it. I’ve said it repeatedly, but you can’t achieve something like this if you don’t believe it.”

Having finished third in Okinawa-based Group E with a 1-2 record, Japan won both of its games in the tournament’s classification round to determine 17th-32nd place.

Only China and Lebanon remained in contention to challenge for Asia’s sole direct Olympic berth coming into the final day of the 17-32 classification round.

Japan secured its first World Cup win in 17 years by beating Finland 98-88 in the first group stage of the tournament taking place in Okinawa, the Philippines and Indonesia through Sept. 10.

The result was bookended by losses to heavyweights Germany and Australia.

The only Asian team to win a game in the opening group stage, Japan remained in pole position for Asian qualification by beating Venezuela 86-77 in its first classification game Thursday.

Watanabe, Japan’s sole NBA representative in the absence of Los Angeles Lakers forward Rui Hachimura, said Olympic qualification was the “reward” for “several months of hard work.”

“It doesn’t get better than this,” said Watanabe, who tallied five points and 10 rebounds. “Everyone did their part.”

By Ch Fahad Khan Janda