SAITAMA, Japan (AP) — Japan coach Tom Hovasse apologized to Belgium for letting his emotions get the best of him after the exciting end to their quarterfinals matchup in the women's basketball tournament.
It was understandable. After all, making it to the medal round at the Olympics is a big deal.
Saki Hayashi hit a 3-pointer with 15.2 seconds left, and Japan advanced to the semifinals, edging Olympic newcomer Belgium 86-85 Wednesday after the Belgian Cats missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer.
“I felt bad for my overexuberant celebration,” Hovasse said. “I didn't mean any disrespect to Belgium. I literally lost my mind for about 20 seconds after the buzzer went off. It was amazing. I hadn't felt that way in a long, long time.”
Japan joined the U.S. and Serbia in the semifinals of the women's basketball tournament Friday and will face 2012 silver medalist France, a 67-64 winner over 2016 silver medalist Spain. Hovasse said this is definitely the biggest win in Japan's history.
“Until Friday,” Hovasse said. “That would top this.”
Yuki Miyazawa made three of her seven 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, helping Japan erase Belgium’s nine-point lead. Japan tied it the game four times down the stretch to set up the thrilling finish.
“I feel very relieved after the results of today’s match,” Miyazawa said. “For me particularly, my job is to do 3 point shots, so I’m very happy that I was able to have seven.”
Hayashi put Japan ahead to stay with her 3 from near the top of the key. Then Kim Mestdagh had a shot to give Belgium the win as the teams traded haymakers down the stretch, but her pull-up jumper from near the free throw line as time expired bounced off the rim.
Then the celebration began for the host nation. Players rushed the court, hugging teammates and yelling out exhilarating screams of joy after advancing to the medal round. They posed for photos and national pride was on full display as they were cheered on by supporters and volunteers at the Saitama Super Arena.
The Japanese earned their way into a second straight Olympics, finishing third in qualifying last year in Belgium. They entered the games ranked 10th in the world after finishing eighth at the 2016 Rio Games. Japan won without Ramu Tokashiki, a former member of the WNBA's Seattle Storm who tore her right ACL last December.
Miyazawa finished with 21 points for Japan. Takada had 19, Himawari Akaho added 12 points and Rui Machida finished with 10 points and 14 rebounds. Nako Motohashi had 10.
Belgium made an impressive Olympic debut behind the play of Emma Meesseman. The MVP of the 2019 WNBA Finals with the Washington Mystics came into the quarterfinals leading all scorers, averaging 27.3 points a game.
Belgium also beat Japan last year during group play.
She capped off her first Olympics with 25 points, and Kim Mestdagh added 24. Allemand scored 11, and Antonia Delaere had 10.
But it wasn't enough as the stunned Belgian Cats were emotional as Japan celebrated, some covering their face with their hands, others being consoled by teammates and visibly disappointed in the outcome.
“Every time you lose a game of this importance on a last-second shot it hurts,” Mestdagh said. “When you know there’s a possibility to get to the semifinals it hurts when you get this close.”
Japan led 19-16 after the first quarter after turning three turnovers into seven points. The Japanese scored 11 of the first 13 points in the second quarter. Mestdagh scored nine of the final 11 points for Belgium for a 42-41 lead at halftime, and the Belgian Cats led 68-61 after the third quarter.
SPEED NEGATES SIZE
The Belgian Cats had a size advantage with the 6-foot-4 Meesseman, one of five 6-1 or taller compared to Japan. Takada and Akaho are the tallest players on Japan's roster at 6-1. Yet Belgium only had a 36-29 edge in rebounding and outscored Japan 36-30 in the paint.
Japan came into the knockout round leading the women’s tournament making 38% of its 3-pointers. Belgium ranked next to last in pool play but nearly matched the Japanese (11 of 23). Japan knocked down five in the fourth quarter and finished 14 of 33.
Belgian captain Ann Wauters' career ended with this loss. But the No. 1 pick in the 2000 WNBA called it an exciting game and said the future of Belgium basketball is in good hands.
“Maybe it’s not the fairy tale ending that we hoped for," Wauters said, “but it’s still nice enough."
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