Basketball World Cup 2023: Japan Beats Venezuela at FIBA Basketball World Cup; Big Step toward Paris Olympics (UPDATE 1)

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Japan’s Yuta Watanabe hugs Makoto Hiejima, right, after Thursday night’s victory over Venezuela in FIBA Basketball World Cup action.

Japan produced a rousing fourth-quarter comeback to snatch victory from Venezuela in a classification round game at the FIBA Basketball World Cup on Thursday and take a big step toward sealing a spot at the Paris Olympics.

Makoto Hiejima scored 23 points, including 17 in the fourth, to power Japan (2-2) to an 86-77 win at Okinawa Arena. A victory on Saturday over Cape Verde would guarantee Japan a berth to Paris as the top Asian team from the World Cup.

Japan flipped the switch after falling behind by as many as 15 points in the fourth in a performance that had shades of its remarkable comeback from an 18-point deficit in the first-round game against Finland.

Hiejima is the team’s oldest player at 33, but he took the game over by drilling four 3-pointers in the final quarter to carry world No. 36 Japan past Venezuela.

“I think coach [Tom] Hovasse left me on the court so I could help my team,” Hiejima said after the game. “I showed I could do that.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Makoto Hiejima, left, puts up a shot in the third quarter of FIBA Basketball World Cup action against Venezuela on Thursday.

Hiejima is one of Japan’s most potent offensive weapons, but he was kept largely quiet for long periods by the world No. 17 team. Even so, his true ability shone through when his team needed him most.

“Very few players in the world can stop him when he’s on a roll,” teammate Yuta Watanabe gushed. “What he did today isn’t a surprise to me. That’s the Makoto Hiejima I know.”

Hiejima spent a considerable time on the bench after getting into foul trouble, but he repaid the faith shown in him after hitting the floor in the fourth quarter with the game in danger of slipping away.

After a long career representing Japan, Hiejima is determined to make a splash at this World Cup. And now, the squad can lock up a ticket to Paris with a win over Cape Verde, which is ranked 64th in the world.

“We have a chance to grab that spot ourselves — it’s right in front of us. I hope we can share that joy with all our fans,” Hiejima said.

He will not be holding back as he seeks another moment of delight on the court.

AP Photo/Hiro Komae
Japan guard Makoto Hiejima (6) tries to shoot against Venezuela center Windi Graterol (15) in the first half of their Basketball World Cup classification match in Okinawa, southern Japan, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.
AP Photo/Hiro Komae
Japan’s team members celebrate after defeating Venezuela in their Basketball World Cup classification match in Okinawa, southern Japan, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.