OSAKA — Championship teams usually share one common trait: They raise their level of play in the most critical stages of games.
This was on display in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s pivotal bj-league contest between the host Evessa, the inaugural league champion, and the Niigata Albirex BB.
The hosts used an eye-opening 11-2 run to pull away from Niigata en route to a 97-92 victory at Osaka Central Gymnasium.
“We came here and got two big wins this weekend,” said Evessa center Jeff Newton, who scored 10 points, cleared 12 rebounds and swatted two shots.
The Evessa (21-9), who lost a road series in Niigata in November, completed the weekend sweep and extended their lead in the league standings to three games over the Takamatsu Five Arrows. The Albirex (17-13) dropped into a tie for third place.
“We took care of our home floor just like they took care of their home floor,” Newton said.
This sweep, Newton said, is a “confidence thing.”
He added: “We don’t want to have a team beat us four times in one season.”
It didn’t happen. Even so, Niigata coach Masaya Hirose praised his foe after the loss.
“I’m proud of Osaka,” he said. “They are the toughest team in the league. We want to play them again in the playoffs.”
Osaka led 73-67 after three quarters of a back-and-forth contest witnessed by 5,192 mostly noisy spectators.
After Albirex guard Kimitake Sato’s bank shot made it a 73-69 game early in the final period, Osaka took charge.
Matt Lottich pushed Evessa’s lead to six on a textbook turnaround jumper. He finished with 20 points, but none more important than those two.
Then he made a steal and converted a layup, and just as quickly as you can say sayonara this key spurt was started.
Niigata missed several shots early in the quarter and struggled to find its offensive rhythm. The Albirex’s turnovers proved costly, too, including an Osaka steal that was converted into a David Palmer layup for an 81-71 lead, the game’s first margin in double digits, with 5:49 left.
This game had much less drama than the previous evening’s contest, though, a double-overtime thriller won by Osaka 85-84.
But the Evessa had the edge energy-wise in a final quarter exemplified by scrappy play from all five men it put on the floor. Case in point: 192-cm Kazuya Hatano outjumped Niigata’s Nick Davis, a 203-cm center for a rebound, a loose ball that was up for grabs for what seemed like half an hour. That defensive board led to a Lottich deuce.
Niigata, one of the league’s biggest teams, held a 46-45 rebounding edge, a number that pleased Osaka coach Kensaku Tennichi.
“I really like to focus on defensive rebounds,” he said, calling 35 boards a game a number he always wants his players to get (they had 31 on Sunday). “I say, ‘We need rebounds.’ “
Power forward Lynn Washington had 12 boards and 20 points for Osaka, a typical Washington game.
In his postgame interview, Newton was cheerful and relaxed and displayed his humorous side
“Tonight I’m going to eat a big meal,” Newton said, “a steak, potatoes and vegetables.”
And then what?
“I’m just going to bed. I’m tired,” he said.
He’s earned his rest. Two games against Niigata in less than 24 hours will do that to any player.