Japan’s women’s team punches Olympic ticket with victory over Canada

Star guard Mai Yamamoto came up clutch for Japan as the Tokyo Games silver medalist booked its place in the Paris Olympics women’s basketball tournament with a tense 86-82 victory over Canada on Sunday.

Akatsuki Japan advanced to its third straight Olympics by winning the four-team qualifying tournament in Sopron, Hungary, with a 2-1 record.

Head coach Toru Onzuka’s world No. 9 squad came into its final game of the round-robin needing to defeat fifth-ranked Canada to secure its ticket to Paris.

Yamamoto and power forward Evelyn Mawuli led Japan with 21 points apiece, while livewire guard Saori Miyazaki added 16.

The 24-year-old Yamamoto got her team across the line with big plays down the stretch in the final quarter. She made a contested layup to give Japan an 85-80 lead with 41 seconds left, then effectively sealed the game when she drew a foul and hit one free throw to go up by four with 17 seconds left.

“We had to win, so I’m glad we all battled together to get this result,” Yamamoto said.

“This is just the start. We want to go to an even higher level and win gold at the Paris Olympics.”

Japan made a strong start to the tournament by beating favorite Spain 86-75, but faced the prospect of missing out on the Olympics after a shock 81-75 loss to host Hungary on Friday.

“The team won by playing together as one,” Onzuka said. “I’m really happy.

“Canada was also a strong team, so we expected a difficult game. Everyone believed in each other and fought with determination.”