China holds off Japan in opening game of FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers in Clark

China rolled to a dream start in the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers by bucking a late Japan comeback to post a 66-57 win in the third window opener Wednesday at the AUF Sports and Cultural Center in Angeles, Pampanga.

The Chinese, which led by as many as 22 points in the final period, saw their lead dwindle to seven down the stretch before eventually pulling away from their Group B counterparts to wrap up their first assignment in these qualifiers.

Zhou Peng, the 2021 Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) Defensive Player of the Year, stabilized his team's offense and put up 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting, including a 4-for-9 mark from downtown. Shen Zijie, meanwhile, added 11 and five boards off the bench.

China, which is playing without stars Zhou Qi and Guo Ailun, hit the ground running from the opening tip by surging to a 7-0 start and looked as if it was going to cruise comfortably late in the fourth after building a 57-35 lead with eight minutes to go in the game.

Japan, however, refused to go away and unleashed a furious 16-1 rally, which was capped by a triple from Makoto Hiejima to turn it into a tight 58-51 contest with 4:12 remaining.

Yet China remained unfazed behind Peng, who assisted on the team's final two field goals, including a basket by Ren Junfei that hiked the lead to 66-54 and essentially sealed the result.

A stifling China defense held their counterparts to a paltry 32.8 percent shooting from the field, and the wards of coach Du Feng also outmuscled Japan on the boards, 42-31, to buck a pedestrian offensive showing (42.1 percent) in their first game of the tournament.

China also created a massive advantage from the free throw line and made 13-of-19 foul shots compared to Japan's 4-of-7 mark.

Three more games are on the docket in a killer schedule in Clark for China, which will face Chinese Taipei on Thursday for the second game of a back-to-back. A rematch with Japan is slated on Saturday before the 16-time Asia Cup champions close out their schedule with another game against Chinese Taipei on Sunday.

Japan, which slipped to 1-1 in the qualifiers and are playing without NBA standouts Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe, was led by 12 markers from Makoto Hiejima and Kosuke Kanamaru. Tenketsu Harimoto added 11 in the losing effort.

The Japanese can bounce back with a win over Chinese Taipei on Friday.