Nothing’s decided yet.
That was the big, bold message the Tokyo Apache delivered loud and clear on Sunday at Ariake Colosseum, beating the Niigata Albirex BB 99-92.
Niigata lost sole possession of first place in the bj-league standings by falling 78-69 to Tokyo in Saturday’s series opener.
The Osaka Evessa, the reigning league champions, now lead by one game after beating the host Sendai 89ers for the second time in as many days. Sunday’s 100-85 triumph put Osaka in the driver’s seat with a 14-6 record. Niigata is now 13-7.
By winning three of four games to start 2007, Apache coach Joe “Jellybean” Bryant’s ballclub has put itself in the thick of things for the season’s second half, improving to 9-11 in the process.
In his postgame address to the 2,158 spectators, Bryant summed up the euphoric victory with this simple, revealing message:
“Wow, wow, wow, wow, WOW!
“Basketball is a game of infinite highs and lows,” he reminded the crowd, and then thanked them for supporting the second-year league.
Officially, the season’s second half starts after the first bj-league All-Star Game on Jan. 27 in Okinawa. But each of the league’s eight teams has now completed half of their 40-game schedule. Up next: the Apache play host to the Evessa, the Kansai giants who are 4-0 in this year’s meetings.
“I guess we probably surprised everyone by beating Niigata twice,” Bryant said, “but we didn’t surprise ourselves. We really prepared well for this match, and also the players really paid attention to what we needed to do to get two wins this weekend.”
The Apache, who iced the win at the free-throw line in the final minutes, outscored Niigata 34-25 in the third quarter to take a 76-69 lead into the final frame. The game’s 19th and final tie, 82-all, occurred with 4:55 left on a Nick Davis layup for Niigata, which capped an 11-2 spurt.
John Humphrey shattered the deadlock with an explosive dunk, driving the baseline from left to right. The Albirex didn’t get closer than two the rest of the way.
Tokyo’s Tony Jones led the victors with 22 points, while Dameion Baker added 21, Humphrey contributed 20 and Jumpei Nakama had a season-best 15 (he had a combined 14 in the previous four games) while also playing a season-high 30 minutes.
Davis, who had a game-high 25 points, Matt Garrison (24) and Jack Hartman (17) provided the bulk of the scoring for Niigata.
Tokyo won this contest at the free-throw line, sinking 30 of 35 attempts. Niigata was 14-for-25 on foul shots. Tokyo was the aggressor in this game, going strong to the hole instead of settling for long-range jumpers all afternoon.
“We’re not the Phoenix Suns where we can launch up 3s and think that we can win,” said Bryant, who team took eight 3s compared to Niigata’s 17. “I think we’ve got to shoot 3s at the right time.”
The Albirex walked off the court with a 44-42 advantage, getting the final points of the half on tip-in with 10 ticks remaining on the second-quarter clock.
Jones and Baker were Tokyo’s high scorers before the break with 11 points apiece. Garrison had 12 in that span.
There were 13 ties in the opening half, including a 24-all score after the first period. Yep, Niigata and Tokyo traded leads about as frequently as birds chirp.
The Apache took a 5-0 lead to open the game when Jones’ jumper dropped through the bottom of the net and Michael Jackson swished a spot-up 3-pointer.
Niigata came right back, knotting it at 7 on a Makoto Hasegawa 3-ball from the right wing and setting the stage for the first half’s storyline:
Or as Jones put it: “It (takes) heart and it’s intensity and it’s focus and it’s confidence. Mostly it’s confidence and it’s heart. It’s, ‘Yeah, this one is going in, but so what.’ “
For Niigata, there’s no time to reflect on this loss or the season’s first half. “We need to look ahead to the next 20 games,” Albirex coach Masaya Hirose said.
But for Tokyo, though, momentum carried over to Sunday. Grabbing a victory Saturday “was a great feeling, man,” Jones said later. “We just stayed humble. We’ve been working hard ever since the (Christmas) break.
“We left the break 6-10 and we weren’t happy about that. . . .”
The Apache had a big reason to smile Sunday afternoon. Preparations for Osaka began later that evening.