By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
One of things I love most about watching basketball is when polar opposite styles clash. Like how would the Tennessee Volunteers or the Phoenix Suns, two teams that play at frenetic paces, match up against teams that trend towards half-court, set offenses, like UNI or the Boston Celtics?
What I like is the game within the game. Watching how the coaches and players choose to counter the opposition by adjusting how they play or by willfully enforcing their style upon the other squad.
So, I was pleasantly surprised at last Sunday’s goodwill game between the Yakumo Academy Girls High School Basketball Team from Tokyo and the Southern California All-Stars that took place at Schurr High School in Montebello.
Despite the fact the Yakumo team had just touched down in LA the day before and was jet-lagged and that the Cali All-Stars had only gotten the chance to get together for a single practice, the game was an absolute blast to watch.
Beyond the fact that it featured a number of lead changes, a clutch three to go up by one, followed by a clutch free throw to send the game into overtime, and a nail-biter finish that saw the Japanese team eek out a victory, what made the whole experience a truly satisfying ordeal was the fusion of two very different styles.
Nationally ranked, the Yakumo Academy Falcons are a perennial power in girl’s basketball in Japan and competed in the high school national championships this year. The Falcon’s head coach, Yuko Takagi, who has been at the helm of the girls bball program for the past 23 years, considers this year’s team to be one of her best despite no player standing taller than 5-9. Beyond their lack of height, what was immediately noticeable when they entered the gym was that every single player had her hair cropped short.
On the other side of the court was a collection of some of Southern Cali’s finest players. Gathered together by the event’s coordinator Bryan Takeda, the team’s head coach and former USC star guard Jamie Hagiya, and assistant coach Rob Robinson, the team was handpicked from John Miur, South Torrance, West Torrance, Notre Dame, St. Mary’s and Flintridge Prep. The So Cal All-Stars featured South’s Kelsie Sampson, who is 6-1, as well as Muir’s Daysha Thomas and Flintridge’s Deanna Watson, both who are 5-10. In fact, there was no one under 5-6 for the American squad. Also, in contrast to the Japanese team, every single player had her hair long, tied in a ponytail.
Because of the height discrepancy, the game plan for the Cali All-Stars was pretty straightforward from the get go. Dominate the boards, pound the ball inside and feed their bigs for easy baskets underneath.
“They are so big,” said Shiori Endo, one of the Falcons three team captains. “I didn’t know how to guard them.”
Coach Takagi obviously did, as the Falcons countered with intense ball pressure on the guards, making getting the ball inside a time-consuming affair. If and when it got to the California All-Stars post players, the defense would then swarm the ball—a flurry of hands that caused a myriad turnovers.
On offense, the Falcons were running at every opportunity, pushing the ball for easy buckets in transition. If the shot wasn’t there, they’d keep their offense in motion, mainly around the perimeter, and move until they had open shots.
The California All-Stars countered this strategy by slowing the tempo of the game at every opportunity, walking the ball up and working hard to control the glass. They also worked in isolation on many of their sets.
Despite having played together only once, the Cali All-Stars had a balanced attack. Sampson finished with 15 points. John Muir standout Taylor Gomez had 13, nine in the second half and OT. Christine Pascua of Notre Dame had 11. Thomas had 10 and Kelsey Ishigo of West Torrance had six. Every player scored at least three points.
For Yakumo, five players carried the scoring load (as well as the majority of the playing time): team captains Misato Nakamura, Manami Nakahara and Endo as well as Mai Shiozawa and Aoi Kashima. Nakahara, who netted 18 points, did so in a variety of ways, taking players off the dribble to the hole, pulling up for midrange jumpers, as well as shooting the three. Her shot was also more of a typical American style release, with one hand behind the ball.
Endo had a crazy game, her 24 points coming on eight triples, some of which were five feet from the half court line, one of which put the team up by one with a few seconds left in regulation and another which solidified Yakumo’s victory in the extra period. Shiozawa netted all 12 of her points in the second half and OT. Nakamura had 11 and Kashima added six.
“They’re shooting,” Hagiya said after the game when asked what was the biggest difference in the teams. “They’re incredible shooters. You have to guard almost NBA three-point range and further out, because they’ll let it go from way further out then the normal three. Their shooting is really precise and on top of that, their intensity. They trap, they press full court.”
Other differences, the more subtle kind, were evident as well. The Falcons would bow when subbing in and out and while some of the girls had more- American-styled shots, most of the Falcons pushed the ball from their chests. They also didn’t talk a lot, the majority of the noise coming from their coach on the sidelines.
In America, talking to the refs and talking in general are vital parts of the game. Watch the Celtics play and every player on the court can be seen talking on defense. Watch the Lakers play and from the opening tip, Kobe Bryant can be seen jawing at the refs. The crafty, savvy point guards, from high school to the pros to intramurals, will chat up referees to try and get calls in their favor or to just get a feel for how the official is blowing the whistle. It’s become part of the American basketball experience. For example, Gomez was pleading for calls after continually being pestered by the Falcons’ D. The whistles starting coming in the second half.
Not to paint broad strokes from a small sample size, but the Yakumo team nary once even raised a questioning eyebrow to called fouls and non-calls. The only instance where they questioned the officials was after a missed freethrow. See, in Japan, there are slightly different rules. For one, they don’t have one-and-one free throws, hence the mix up. Another obvious difference, is that in Japan, players are allowed a slight hop before the dribble, which would be a travel here in the States.
“It was pretty different, but it was really fun because they shot differently. They also had an extra step every time, so it threw us off a little bit,” said senior Michelle Sui who was the star point guard for South Torrance High School this season.
“I was able to experience many things that I’d never had before,” Shiozawa said about the game. In addition, the Falcons toured around the city and also got to watch a Lakers game.
But perhaps Nakahara summed it up best.
“It was a culture shock.”
And in basketball, when two very talented, very different teams meet up, as Sunday can attest, electric gameplay will undoubtedly ensue.
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