By securing direct Olympic qualification at the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup, co-host Japan achieved the lofty goal set by head coach Tom Hovasse and his players before the tournament.

World No. 36 Japan claimed Asia's only direct ticket to next summer's Paris Games by finishing first among Asian teams at the Aug. 25 to Sept. 10 World Cup in Okinawa, the Philippines and Indonesia, following an 80-71 victory over Cape Verde on Saturday.

Faced with an unforgiving Group E slate against No. 11 Germany, No. 24 Finland and No. 3 Australia, Japan went 1-2 in the first group stage at Okinawa Arena before winning both of its games in the 17th-32nd classification round to finish 3-2 overall.

"I think we showed the world what we can do. Now we're on everybody's radar, we're on everybody's maps. That's a big step," said Hovasse, who coached Japan's women to Olympic silver at the Tokyo Games.

Japan players pose for a photo after earning a 2024 Paris Olympic berth with a victory over Cape Verde in a FIBA Basketball World Cup classification round game at Okinawa Arena in Okinawa, southern Japan, on Sept. 2, 2023. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

The World Cup co-host was outclassed but not embarrassed in 81-63 and 109-89 losses to heavyweights Germany and Australia, respectively, either side of its biggest recent win at a major tournament.

Japan's 98-88 defeat of Finland, its first World Cup victory since it last hosted in 2006, was also the only win by an Asian team in this year's first group stage, putting it in pole position for Paris.

With the biggest name in Japanese basketball, Los Angeles Lakers forward Rui Hachimura, opting to skip the World Cup, the spotlight had fallen on Phoenix Suns wing Yuta Watanabe as the national team's lone NBA player.

Things did not go to plan for Japan or Watanabe, however, after the 28-year-old sprained his ankle in an exhibition game against Angola on Aug. 15, 10 days out from the start of the tournament.

The injury left him racing to get back on court in time for the World Cup opener against Germany, with his 12 minutes against Angola his only playing time during Japan's slate of warmup games.

Although still not in game condition, he was a standout against Germany with 20 points. While he tallied just four in the win over Finland, he made a big defensive contribution against the team led by star Utah Jazz forward-center Lauri Markkanen.

Watanabe, who contemplated retiring from national team duties if Japan had not reached the Olympics, expressed relief after clinching qualification with the win over Cape Verde.

"I was worried that this might be my last time (playing for Japan). I'm grateful to everyone," he said.

Watanabe was undoubtedly the face of the team, but American-born big man Josh Hawkinson was its bedrock, averaging a team-high 21 points and 10.8 rebounds over the five games.

His 28 points and 19 rebounds made victory possible against Finland, while he steadied the ship for Japan in the face of a late surge by Cape Verde, scoring his team's last six points in a 29-and-seven outing.

Japan players celebrate after earning a 2024 Paris Olympic berth with a victory over Cape Verde in a FIBA Basketball World Cup classification round game at Okinawa Arena in Okinawa, southern Japan, on Sept. 2, 2023. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Standing just 1.72 meters, Yokohama B-Corsairs guard Yuki Kawamura announced himself on the international stage with a blistering 25-point, nine-assist outing against Finland. The performance included a clutch step-back three-pointer in the face of Markkanen that set social media abuzz.

"Since Tom became coach, we've worked every single day toward the sole goal of being No. 1 in Asia. I think we ought to savor the moment," the 22-year-old Kawamura said Saturday.

After being singled out by his coach for defensive lapses, University of Nebraska-Lincoln guard Keisei Tominaga came through down the stretch of the tournament, including 22 points against Cape Verde on 6-of-8 shooting from deep.

"I was determined to help the team with my three-point shots no matter what. I'm glad I made them," the 22-year-old Tominaga said.

Shooting guard Makoto Hiejima, the oldest team member at 33, delivered a game-winning performance in the classification round opener against Venezuela to keep Japan on track for Paris.

The veteran scored 17 of his game-high 23 points in the fourth quarter of the 86-77 win over the world No. 17 South Americans, helping overcome a 15-point deficit.

"More than anything, I'm happy we've been able to make our team competitive on the world stage," Hiejima said.

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