SAITAMA, Japan (AP) — Himawari Akaho scored 17 points, and Japan beat France 87-71 Friday night to advance to the women’s basketball gold medal game of the Olympics for the first time in the country’s history.
Japan will play the United States, a 79-59 winner over Serbia, on Sunday in the title game just as coach Tom Hovasse predicted when he was hired in 2017. France, the 2012 silver medalist, will play Serbia for bronze on Saturday.
This victory continues an amazing run for the host nation, which came into the Tokyo Games ranked 10th in the world. Even with no fans allowed due to the coronavirus pandemic, volunteers and other supporters found their way into the stands at the Saitama Super Arena to witness this historic moment.
The fans stood and started applauding in the final seconds, though the players’ celebration was more muted than after their victory in the quarterfinals. Players hugged before huddling on the logo at midcourt, where they danced before turning and bowing and applauding their supporters. They then posed for photographers at their end of the court.
Just reaching the semifinals was a first for Japan in the country’s fifth Olympics. Hovasse, the first foreign-born coach and a native of Durango, Colorado, was hired as head coach in 2017 after being an assistant with the team that finished eighth at the 2016 Rio Games.
This semifinal was a rematch of the Olympic opener for both teams that Japan won 74-70.
This one was not that close as Japan took control in the second quarter once the 3-pointers started falling. Japan finished 11-of-22 from 3-point range. When France tried to defend the long shots, the Japanese players continued to make cuts to the basket and running past French defenders.
Japan improved to 6-1 all-time against France, including 3-0 in the Olympics. Japan’s only loss to France came at the 1994 world championships in the semifinals.
Yuki Miyazawa scored 14 for Japan, which had 10 players score. Rui Machida came in leading the tournament averaging 12.8 assists per game, and she set the Olympic record with 18.
Sandrine Gruda led France with 18 points. Marine Fauthoux scored 13.
The teams took turns driving to the basket early in the game for layups, and France led 22-14 after the first quarter. Japan, which missed five of six 3-pointers to start the game, made 5 of 6 from beyond the arc in the second — outscoring France 27-12 for a 41-34 halftime lead.
Japan led 68-50 in the third and extended its lead to as much as 27 in the fourth.