Before the Olympics, Sue Bird said she and Breanna Stewart were joking with Ramu Tokashiki about the chance to potentially play against each other in Rio de Janeiro. The only way that would happen is if both teams advanced to the knockout round, as the United States and Japan were in different groups.
The trio of Storm players held up their ends of the bargain, and the two nations will now meet in the quarterfinals on Tuesday at 2:45 p.m. PT.
“First of all, I’m super happy for her,” Bird told USAB.com. “They worked really hard to get to this point. I’m excited to play against her.”
While the USA has won five straight Olympic gold medals, Japan’s run to the knockout round has also defied the odds. Tokashiki’s team entered the tournament at No. 16 in the FIBA World Rankings, the lowest ranking of any nation in Group A and second lowest in the Olympics. The Japanese hadn’t even participated in women’s basketball at the Olympics since 2004, and they’ve never medaled.
Yet here they are, battling the unbeaten Americans for a spot in the medal round after finishing fourth in Group A with a 3-2 record. Japan could have easily been 4-1, too, considering it had a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter before losing to Australia.
A big reason for Japan’s success is the play of Tokashiki, who’s averaging team highs of 17.6 points and seven rebounds per game. The only WNBA player on Japan’s roster, Tokashiki ranks as the fourth-leading scorer in the tournament and is shooting better than 50 percent from the field.
Tuesday will mark her country’s first Olympic matchup with the USA since 1996.
“I saw Japan play Australia, and I thought they looked amazing,” USA coach Geno Auriemma told USAB.com. “They’re big, they’re talented and they’re tough. Every game they’ve played has been a tough game. In the past, coaching against them, not much has changed in how well they move you, how well they spread the floor and try to create mismatches. They can really make you look silly on defense.”
Auriemma’s team heads into the knockout round having won all five of its preliminary-round games by at least 25 points. Bird has been running the show, starting at point guard and dishing out a team-high 30 assists with just three total turnovers. Bird, who is now 29-0 in her Olympic career, ranks second in the tournament behind Japan’s Asami Yoshida with six assists per game.
Stewart is playing 12.6 minutes per contest, second fewest on the team, but has been ultra productive by averaging 10.4 points on 73.9 percent shooting. The USA’s youngest player by four years, Stewart has also taken the most free throws on the team (20) and made 80 percent of them.
“A lot of Olympic teams that I’ve been on have had offensive power, but now we go all the way down to the 12th player,” Bird told USAB.com. “The minute you sub, there’s no let off. That person who comes in can do just as much offensively as the next.”
The winner of Tuesday’s quarterfinal will face either France or Canada in the semis on Thursday.