The Osaka Evessa and Niigata Albirex, the top two seeds in the inaugural bj-league playoffs, advanced to the championship game with victories in Saturday’s semifinals before a raucous crowd of 5,450 at Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum.
David Palmer scored a team-high 23 points and made four big free throws in the final minute, as Osaka hung on to win a 79-76 nail-biter against the Sendai 89ers in the first semifinal and book a spot in Sunday’s final.
Matt Garrison paced Niigata with 18 points in the second semifinal, as the Albirex beat the Tokyo Apache 79-68 going away.
The Evessa led by as many as 17 points in the second half but nearly squandered it all, as Sendai missed a chance to tie the game when guard Haruyuki Ishibashi missed a wide open 3-pointer in front of his team’s bench with just 7 seconds left.
Top-seeded Osaka, which posted the league’s best regular-season record at 31-9, and defeated the 89ers in six of eight meetings, appeared to be on the verge of turning the game into a blowout several times, but Sendai kept battling back.
The 89ers, who were 18-22 this season, relied on the clutch play of forward Andre Larry in the second half, and nearly advanced to the title game by forcing several turnovers and converting one key basket after another down the stretch.
Larry, who scored 27 points and had 11 rebounds, put Sendai in a position to tie the contest when he drained a one-handed jumper with 13 seconds left.
The Evessa then promptly threw away the inbounds pass after the basket, setting the stage for Ishibashi’s shot at glory.
Osaka, which led 59-49 heading into the fourth quarter, played its four foreigners for the majority of the second half, but the strategy nearly backfired, as the team appeared to tire in the fourth quarter.
Lynn Washington and Jeff Newton chipped in with 18 points apiece for the Evessa, with Newton hauling down a game-high 13 rebounds.
Michael Jackson led the 89ers with 18 points.
The second game was a sloppy, physical affair, with Tokyo’s John Humphrey — the league’s leading scorer — getting into early foul trouble and spending much of the first half on the bench.
Despite the loss of firepower, the Apache hung in and went into halftime tied 30-30 with the Albirex.
With 7 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Niigata led 67-55 and appeared in control, but the Apache went on a late run and pulled within four, at 72-68, on a 3-pointer by Humphrey.
Tokyo had the ball and a chance to cut the lead further, however, Dameion Baker was called for an offensive foul with 1:08 left and the Albirex then scored the game’s final 7 points.
Apache coach Joe Bryant was unhappy with the officials, who let the rough play get out of control at times, and said so afterward.
“I’m not a sore loser, but the officials made some calls for them that they didn’t make for us,” Bryant noted. “The officials should not dictate the outcome. The players have to decide the game.”
Antoni Wyche scored 17 points for Niigata, while teammate Nick Davis added 15 and a game-high 12 rebounds for the Albirex, who went 29-11 this season.
William Pippen led Tokyo, which was 20-20 during the regular season, with 18 points.
Humphrey finished with 13 points — 10 below his average — for the Apache.
Tickets are still available for Sunday’s title game, which will tip off at 6:30 p.m.
The third-place contest will precede the final, starting at 3:00 p.m.