SAITAMA, Japan (AP) — Saki Hayashi hit a 3-pointer with 15.2 seconds left, and Japan advanced to the semifinals by edging Olympic newcomer Belgium 86-85 Wednesday.
Yuki Miyazawa made three of her seven 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, helping Japan erase Belgium’s nine-point lead. Japan tied it the game four times down the stretch to set up the thrilling finish.
Hayashi put Japan ahead to stay with her 3 from near the top of the key with 15.2 seconds left. Kim Mestdagh had a shot to give Belgium the win, but her pull-up jumper from near the free throw line as time expired bounced off the rim.
Then the celebration began for the host nation. Players rushed the court, hugging teammates and yelling out exhilarating screams of joy after advancing to the medal round.
The Japanese earned their way into a second straight Olympics, finishing third in qualifying last year in Belgium. They entered the games ranked 10th in the world after finishing eighth at the 2016 Rio Games. Japan won without Ramu Tokashiki, a former member of the WNBA's Seattle Storm who tore her right ACL last December.
Miyazawa finished with 21 points for Japan. Takada had 19, Himawari Akaho added 12 points and Rui Machida finished with 10 points and 14 rebounds. Nako Motohashi had 10.
Belgium made an impressive Olympic debut behind the play of Emma Meesseman. The MVP of the 2019 WNBA Finals with the Washington Mystics came into the quarterfinals leading all scorers, averaging 27.3 points a game.
Belgium also beat Japan last year during group play.
She capped off her first Olympics with 25 points, and Kim Mestdagh added 24. Allemand scored 11, and Antonia Delaere had 10.
But it wasn't enough as the stunned Belgian Cats were emotional as Japan celebrated, some covering their face with their hands, others being consoled by teammates and visibly disappointed in the outcome.
Japan led 19-16 after the first quarter after turning three turnovers into seven points. The Japanese scored 11 of the first 13 points in the second quarter. Kim Mestdagh scored nine of the final 11 points for Belgium for a 42-41 lead at halftime, and the Belgian Cats led 68-61 after the third quarter.
SPEED NEGATES SIZE
The Belgian Cats had a size advantage with the 6-foot-4 Meesseman, one of five 6-1 or taller compared to Japan. Takada and Akaho are the tallest players on Japan's roster at 6-1. Yet Belgium only had a 36-29 edge in rebounding and outscored Japan 36-30 in the paint.
Japan came into the knockout round leading the women’s tournament making 38% of its 3-pointers. Belgium ranked next to last in pool play but nearly matched the Japanese (11 of 23). Japan knocked down five in the fourth quarter and finished 14 of 33.
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Teresa M. Walker, The Associated Press