Co-host Japan's bid to reach the second round of the FIBA Basketball World Cup ended Tuesday with a 109-89 loss to heavyweight Australia.
Looking to emulate Sunday's thrilling 98-88 comeback win over Finland, world No. 36 Japan ran into a brick wall in the form of No. 3 Australia at Okinawa Arena.
Head coach Brian Goorjian's Olympic bronze medal-winning team combined a powerful inside presence with unrelenting defense to outgun a Japanese side that only showed glimpses of its best and could not keep pace in the must-win game for both teams.
Japan's Yuta Watanabe dribbles the ball during a FIBA Basketball World Cup Group E game against Australia at Okinawa Arena in Okinawa, southern Japan, on Aug. 29, 2023. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Josh Giddey led the Boomers with 26 points and 11 assists, while Washington Wizards big man Xavier Cooks contributed 24 points and 16 rebounds.
Coming off a monster 28-point, 19-rebound effort against Finland, Japan center Josh Hawkinson was once again immense, scoring 33 and pulling down seven boards. Phoenix Suns swingman Yuta Watanabe added 24 points and seven rebounds for coach Tom Hovasse's team before fouling out with 1:40 left in the game.
Japan finishes the opening stage in Group E with a 1-2 record, while 2-1 Australia advances to the 16-team second stage in Okinawa along with group winner Germany.
Already guaranteed to top the group, No. 11 Germany improved to a perfect 3-0 with a 101-75 win over No. 24 Finland, which finished 0-3.
Australia's 44-33 edge in the rebounding battle proved critical, with Cooks in particular able to generate second-chance points from the offensive glass as guards Giddey and Patty Mills penetrated Japan's perimeter defense.
"We were trying to limit them and do our best to protect the paint, but when we move across to the weak side, there's nobody on the opposite side to box out," Hawkinson said. "You can't take away everything. I wish I had been able to defensively rebound a little better."
In similar fashion to its opening 81-63 loss to Germany, Japan gave up a big first-half lead before an improved second-half showing. Australia led 25-17 after the first period and 57-35 at the half, but the home side was able to win the second half 54-52 with a capacity crowd of 7,374 behind it.
"Obviously Australia is the better team, but in the first half they outworked us -- cutting, getting all the rebounds, getting all the 50/50 balls. That cannot happen," Watanabe said.
"In the second half we did what we were supposed to do...I'm very proud of our effort, but we've still got to do that for 40 minutes. Twenty minutes is not enough."
While happy with the recent growth shown by his team, Watanabe said it still needed to make up a lot of ground to catch the top basketball nations.
"We want to beat those types of countries," he said. "Australia, they're obviously the No. 3 team in the world and we want to beat them, and to do that we have to set the standard higher, set the expectation higher."
Lauding his players for being "locked in" and "playing for their lives," Goorjian also spoke of his "tremendous respect to the Japanese team and tremendous respect to Hovasse as a coach."
"They play with passion, they play to their strengths, he's got the country behind the team, and the (B-League) domestic competition is on a different level to what it used to be," Goorjian said.
Japan will play further classification games in Okinawa with the goal of finishing as the top Asian team at the tournament, with automatic qualification for the 2024 Paris Olympics still in play as of Tuesday.
The team will need to "keep working, keep grinding" toward its goal of matching the strongest nations, Hovasse said.
"One of these days we're going to beat one of these top teams...and this team is on that path 100 percent," he said. "Everybody is working for each other, working toward the same goal, but sometimes you have to take lumps, like today."