TAKAMATSU — Sometime between early March and mid-April, the Rizing Fukuoka began to resemble a playoff-caliber basketball team.
John Neumann’s team now resembles a championship-caliber team.
Fukuoka lambasted the host Takamatsu Five Arrows in every phase of the game on Sunday, thrashing the so-called home-court advantage and throttling the hosts in every key category except rebounds.
The Rizing’s 112-94 victory in the Western Conference wild-card game at Takamatsu City Gymnasium gives the bj-league an expansion team in the semifinals for the second time in as many seasons.
A year ago, the Five Arrows accomplished the feat before falling to the Osaka Evessa in the championship game.
Now Fukuoka (21-24) will try to end the Evessa dynasty.
The teams will square off in the Western Conference semifinal game on May 3 at Ariake Colosseum.
“I’ll give the guys three or four days off to let this sink in,” Neumann said. “Then it’s right back to work.”
The Rizing have won eight of their last 11 games.
Takamatsu fell to 30-15 and ended the season on a dour note.
“Compared to Rizing Fukuoka, we had a 10-game difference in wins (during the regular season),” Five Arrows coach Motofumi Aoki said. “Even though we had a 10-game difference, this one game made the difference.
“We didn’t play as aggressively as them and I feel sorry for the players about this situation.”
Fukuoka shooting guard Michael Gardener tormented the Five Arrows, dropping shot after shot through the basket. He played all 40 minutes and led all players with 34 points, including 5-for-8 from 3-point range. Like an elusive running back slipping past would-be tacklers, Gardener found the place to be for rebounds, too. He had a team-high 13 boards, eight assists and three steals in a performance that can only be described this way: big-time performance.
“He’s been playing really well for us in recent weeks,” Neumann said of Gardener, echoing his remarks from a recent conversation.
Joshua Peppers (26 points), Jeffrey Price (20), Michael Parker (18) and Tsuyoshi Kawazura (seven) were active scorers on the afternoon.
The Rizing made 11-of-20 3-point shots and collected 20 steals. The Five Arrows, on the other hand, shot 8-for-28 from beyond the arc — Rasheed Sparks and Steve Horne were both 1-for-5, Hiroyuki Kikuchi 1-for-4 and Reggie Warren 0-for-4 — and forced five takeaways.
This game was still up for grabs at halftime.
Leading 49-48 at the midway point, the Rizing shocked the hosts in the pivotal third-quarter, outscoring them 33-18.
Kawazura, the Fukuoka captain, drained a 3-pointer to begin the onslaught. After a Warren basket pulled Takamatsu within 52-50, Rizing used a 12-2 spurt to extend the lead to double digits for good.
Gardener and Kawazura knocked down long-range shots during the run.
“Those 3s from TK (Kawazura) really gave us the spark we needed,” Neumann said, looking back on the game-changing stretch to start the second half.
A Gardener scoop shot and a Parker basket in the paint gave Fukuoka its largest lead of the third quarter, 82-64, at the 1:00 mark.
The Five Arrows shot a dismal 5-for-15 from the field in the third; Rizing was 6-for-10 on 3-pointers and 6-for-12 on 2-point attempts.
Takamatsu never regained its groove in the fourth, hustling to trim the deficit to single digits but failing to do so. The Five Arrows trailed by as many as 24 points, finding the numbers 100-76 staring at them after Price made the first of two foul shots with 4:16 remaining.
“I have to thank the players and thank God because today we won on the road,” Neumann said, “and the players played a great basketball game. I don’t think we could’ve played any better than we did.”
Said Aoki: “We didn’t attack the basket aggressively in the third and fourth quarters. Fukuoka was very aggressive, taking every chance they could to shoot.”
The Five Arrows had won four of six regular-season games against Neumann’s club. On Sunday, Fukuoka’s defense dictated the game’s outcome. Six Rizing players had two or more steals, with Price and Peppers (four apiece) and Parker and Kawazura joining Gardener in the three-steal club.
Neumann masterfully switched between a pressure defense, zone and man-to-man looks, creating confusion for the Five Arrows.
In the zone defense, Takamatsu was forced to take outside shots, which led to numerous misses.
Warren was the top scorer (27 points) and rebounder (14) for the Five Arrows. Yu Okada, who drained five 3s, had 17 points.
When it was over, Aoki spoke in a blunt, quiet voice.
“I take it seriously. Still, it’s the reality,” he said.
A different reality exists for the team that departed Shikoku on Sunday evening. The Rizing’s season is alive, and a date with the two-time defending champions awaits them.
Talk about grand motivation.