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【Basketball】Miyagi MAX Takes the Japan Wheelchair Basketball Championships,Eighth Consecutive Title

The 44th Japan Wheelchair Basketball Championships took place on three days between May 3 and 5 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. Sixteen teams that had won regional tournaments, etc., around Japan, gathered for heated games to decide who was going to reach the pinnacle in Japanese wheelchair basketball. The red-hot final game was between champion Miyagi MAX (Tohoku) and seasoned Chiba Hawks (Kanto). The Miyagi MAX defeated the Chiba Hawks 73 to 44, taking their eighth consecutive title and extending their winning streak by another championship.

Miyagi MAX’s Reo Fujimoto, Top Scorer and MVP

Miyagi MAX, which won the championship

The MVP award went to Miyagi’s ace player, Reo Fujimoto (4.5 points). He scored 150 points in four games, becoming the top scorer for the 11th consecutive championships. According to organizers, a record number of about 7,000 spectators packed the gymnasium over the three-day championships, showing the increased popularity of wheelchair basketball in Japan.

Both teams missed shots early on from the tension of playing the final game. However, once Fujimoto began making his shots, low-pointer Satoshi Sato (1.0 point) and ace rebounder Masato Nakazawa (4.0 points) began scoring as well, changing the flow of the game to the Miyagi MAX’s advantage. After finishing the first quarter with a 16-to-8 double score over the Hawks, the Miyagi MAX never allowed the Chiba Hawks a chance to catch up, maintaining its lead to the end.

Fujimoto scored 41 points in this game alone. He reflected on the game and said, “Chiba had three large players. Their pressure threw my concentration off the basket, but I was able to maintain my focus for 40 minutes on shooting in my own style, even if I was fouled.” Fujimoto’s ability to score shots even when marked by two or three opposing players is a huge source of strength for the Miyagi MAX.

However, the real source of the Miyagi MAX’s strength is its large number of talented athletes with capabilities to represent the Japan team. Of them, low-pointer Akira Toyoshima (2.0 points) exhibited his presence not only in his characteristic defensive skills but also in offense, scoring 15 points—the second highest after Fujimoto. The team experienced some defeats during ace Fujimoto’s absence while he played in an overseas league. However, Toyoshima helped lead the team as co-captain. He said, with pride, “I played a central role for the team by scoring baskets.” In fact, Toyoshima was the first name that head coach Yoshiaki Iwasa mentioned when asked the reason for the team’s victory.

Miyagi MAX has Fujimoto as a definitive ace player. He attracts multiple players from the opposing team to stall his plays, which creates openings for his teammates. It is at times like that when having a player like Toyoshima, who can sink shots with sureness, makes a big difference. With the ability to execute basketball in accordance with play theories, it looks as though MAX will keep reigning for some time to come.

Miyagi MAX Struggled against Third-place Finisher, NO EXCUSE

With that said, there was a team this year that cornered the seemingly rock-solid champion. It was NO EXCUSE (Tokyo) led by the Japan National Team head coach Shimpei Oikawa. Triggered by the bitterness of not making it to the finals in the last championships, the team—which has Hiroaki Kozai (3.5 points), who plays professionally with Fujimoto on the same German club team—worked to raise the overall level of the team. NO EXCUSE played against Miyagi MAX in the semi-finals, and ended the first half tied at 33 to 33. The team kept up a good fight through Kozai’s three-point shots and other moves, giving the reigning champions a hard time before the game ended against them with a score of 69 to 63.

After the semi-final game, Miyagi MAX guard Shingo Fujii (1.5 points) said that while they did not feel pressured, “We expected that it could be a close game. We played while thinking about how to keep the top scorer Kozai from making baskets, but it turned out that he succeeded much of the time.”

Fujimoto (on the left) and Kozai, who are teammates in the German League

Kozai of the defeated No EXCUSE said, “It can be quite tough when the dependable athletes that you play with on the Japan National Team become your opponents. Both teams were pretty much doing the same thing, but there was a bit of difference in precision.” Meanwhile, in speaking of the strengths of Kozai, who is his teammate both in the National Team and the German League, the Miyazaki MAX’s Fujimoto said, “He has the composure that enables him to make shots at any time in addition to a tough mentality that keeps him steady regardless of how the game is going.” He added, “We won this time, but they made it difficult for the full 40 minutes. I saw how much Kozai has developed as a player.” The semi-final in which top Japanese wheelchair basketball athletes played against each other was, without question, the climax of this tournament.

The NO EXCUSE finished third, defeating the Saitama Lions (Kanto) 57 to 45 in the game for third place.

A Great Showing by Young Players and Low Pointers

While Japan National Team-class players like Kozai, Fujimoto, and Mitsugu Chiwaki (2.5 points) of the second-place-finisher Chiba Hawks, are accumulating experience playing in overseas leagues, a great showing is being made in Japan by young players.

One of the players that Kozai said “grew as a player while I was in Germany” is Yukitaka Moriya (4.0 points) of NO EXCUSE. He developed bone cancer at age 14 and has been playing wheelchair basketball since age 18. This is his fifth year as a player. He said, in regards to his goal for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, “I want to play on the Japan National Team. I think I’ll be at my prime age-wise around then.” Head coach Oikawa also happily said, “He really grew a lot in these championships. He took the initiative in starting his warm ups, and I can see that he is very motivated. I am looking forward to seeing him play next year.”

Shohei Harada (1.0) of the Saitama Lions, which made it to the semi-finals for two consecutive years, put on a performance for selection among the Top 5 players. Harada began playing basketball when he was 11 but converted to wheelchair basketball during his first year of senior high school after an ailment. Although the team’s ace Kiyoshi Fujisawa (2.0 points) did not play well during the championships, Harada continued to play the offensive from the outside as a low-point shooter. The team finished in fourth place, but he showed they were aiming higher and said, “We finished lower than last year, when we placed second. However, we are growing as a team. We can stick it out even when the gap in scores becomes big. Personally, I want to concentrate on the role of making outside shots.”

The perennial champion, the Miyagi MAX, once again took the top position this year, but there were some changes apparent in team showings at this year’s Japan Championships. There is no question that heated games will take place at the next championships after the Rio Paralympics.

The Saitama Lions’ offense was suppressed by the Chiba Hawks, with the team losing in the semi-finals

The Chiba Hawks, with ace Daisuke Tsuchiko at the center, aimed to clinch championship for the first time in eight years

*The numerals in parenthesis represent a player’s point classification according to the type or severity of his/her impairment.

text by Kyoko Hoshino,Asuka Senaga
photo by AFLO SPORT ,X-1
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