By Rocky Swift
TOKYO (Reuters) -The French women advanced to the semi-finals for the first ever Olympic medals in 3x3 basketball, defeating host nation Japan in a nail-biting elimination match on Tuesday.
Japan had upended the top-seeded French earlier in the tournament, and went on to serve the only defeat to a United States team brimming with WNBA talent. But it was France's night, defeating Japan 16-14.
"It was a really hard, really tough game," said France's Laetitia Guapo. "We knew that we would have to fight to take this win, and this was what we did."
After the final whistle, Stephanie Mawuli of Japan was overcome with emotion before being embraced by her teammates. As a group, they turned and bowed to the minimal audience of coaches and staff at the Aomi Urban Sports Park in Tokyo with spectators not allowed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The Chinese women's team dispatched Italy with relative ease to advance, while the men of the Russian Olympic Committee had a closer call in eliminating the Netherlands.
In the last quarter-final match, the third-seeded Latvian men redeemed themselves after a lacklustre tournament to dispatch a Japan squad that had squeaked into the knockout phase.
"Through the group stage, we went uphill, downhill, uphill downhill. And it was very frustrating for us because everyone's saying Latvia and Serbia should be in finals," said Latvia's Agnis Cavars, who had one point in the 21-18 victory.
"But we gathered yesterday and talked through all situations, like the family. And today we came through as a different team," he said.
The Japan men's squad had earned their playoff spot with a dramatic win over China earlier on Tuesday.
"For a (Japan) team that was formed three days prior to the Olympics, for us to be able to do that, to play guys who have been together for seven, eight years, I have zero regrets with our performance," said Japan's Ira Brown https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/basketball-3x3-texas-native-brown-goes-pitchers-mound-japanese-dunkmaster-2021-07-26.
The U.S. and Russian women, along with the Serbian https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/3x3-basketball-serbias-mr-bulletproof-adds-olympian-accolades-2021-07-24 and Belgian men, had already secured their spots in Wednesday's semi-finals. The medal games will also take place on Wednesday.
Serbia has been a powerhouse in 3x3's short history, and the Olympic squad sailed through the round-robin stage with a perfect record. Latvia is also a favourite for a medal, with a team featuring some of the world's top-ranked players.
With its Olympic debut, 3x3 is looking to boost its global profile as a faster-paced, more compact alternative to traditional basketball.
Enhancing that atmosphere, DJs play hip-hop music throughout competition in 3x3 games, in keeping with the sport's urban roots.
(Reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Karishma Singh, Muralikumar Anantharaman and Bill Berkrot)