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Japan takes pole position in World Cup's Olympic race

By AFP - Sep 01,2023 - Last updated at Sep 01,2023

Assem Marei (left) of Egypt defends as Ahmad Dwairi of Jordan controls the ball during the FIBA Basketball World Cup clasification match between Egypt and Jordan at Mall of Asia arena in Pasay city, suburban Manila, on Thursday (AFP photo)

OKINAWA, Japan — Japan took a giant step towards Olympic qualification at the Basketball World Cup on Thursday, while South Sudan and Egypt also gave themselves a chance of a Paris Games berth. 

Half of the World Cup's 32 teams have already been eliminated from title contention, but seven Olympic places are still up for grabs at the tournament.

The highest-placed finishers from each of Asia, Africa and Oceania will all qualify for Paris, along with the top two teams from both Europe and the Americas.

World Cup co-hosts Japan was the only one of the six Asian teams to take a win into the classification round and they ended the day with two after roaring back to beat Venezuela 86-77 in Okinawa.

Japan was trailing by nine points heading into the fourth quarter and head coach Tom Hovasse said "it took guts" for them to keep going.

"Great win for Japan basketball," he said.

"We're still learning and getting better but these are the games that it takes to continue on this process and continue getting better and better.

"These type of experiences are fantastic for all of these guys."

Makoto Hiejima led Japan in scoring with 23 points, followed by Yuta Watanabe on 21.

Japan also used a late comeback to beat Finland in the first round and Hovasse said the home crowd had played a big part in his team's success.

"The fans were just amazing," he said.

"Without them, I don't think we win either one of these games. Their support was incredible."

Japan will seal their place at the Paris Games if it beats Cape Verde in its final game on Saturday, but China and Lebanon will be waiting to pounce if they slip up.

Both teams claimed their first wins of the tournament, China beating Angola 83-76 and Lebanon beating Cote d'Ivoire 94-84.


'Release the dragon' 


China, where basketball is a national obsession, had been under intense pressure after losing their three first-round games.

Head coach Aleksandar Djordjevic urged his players to "just go for it" in their final game against the Philippines.

"I believe in them more than they believe in themselves," he said.

"We just have to continue believing in ourselves — I would love everybody to release the dragon that they have inside, that is needed absolutely."

Iran was eliminated from the Asian Olympic race after losing 82-55 to France, who qualify automatically for the Paris Games as hosts.

Jordan is also out after losing 85-69 to Egypt, as are co-hosts the Philippines, which lost 87-68 to South Sudan.

Egypt and South Sudan are the only African teams with two wins, putting them in pole position for the continent's Olympic spot ahead of Cote d'Ivoire, Angola and Cape Verde, which lost 100-77 to Finland.

South Sudan's Carlik Jones came within one rebound of claiming the first triple-double in tournament history, racking up 17 points, 14 assists and 9 rebounds.

South Sudan plays Angola in its final game, while Egypt face New Zealand.

South Sudan head coach Royal Ivey said his team "want more".

"My guys are resilient, they know how to work, they pushed for it, they fought day in, day out, and we got here because of the hard work, the sweat equity that we put in every day," he said.

"It's not over, we've got another game on Saturday, and my guys are not content."

In the day's other game, between two teams who had already been eliminated from Olympic contention, Mexico beat New Zealand 108-100.

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