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Tokyo, Sendai battle for bj-league title shot

by Ed Odeven

The seventh showdown will shatter the stalemate.

The Tokyo Apache and Sendai 89ers went 3-3 against each other during regular-season contests. This intense rivalry now shifts to the bj-league playoff semifinals.

The teams meet again on Saturday at 6 p.m. at Ariake Colosseum. The winner advances to Sunday’s title game against the Osaka Evessa-Rizing Fukuoka winner. The loser plays in the third-place game on Sunday afternoon.

Tokyo (28-17) defeated the Niigata Albirex BB 103-88 in the Eastern Conference wild-card game on April 20.

After the win, Apache coach Joe Bryant told reporters that his team “played with so much enthusiasm and passion.”

In short, his team listened to his pregame pep talk — “We’re three games away from winning the championship.” — and then went out and played inspired basketball.

Sendai, meanwhile, finished as the East’s regular-season champion with a 29-15 record and earned a bye until the semifinals.

The 89ers haven’t played a game in three weeks.

“It seems crazy to me,” Sendai forward Nick DeWitz said, reflecting on the long break. “It’s too long with no games.”

At the same time, DeWitz said, the break gave him and his teammates a chance to rest their tired bodies, noting veteran forward Ryan Blackwell, who was sidelined with an injury in April, had a chance to “get back to full strength.”

The 89ers, coached by Honoo Hamaguchi, didn’t qualify for the playoffs last season, finishing with a 19-21 record.

This season, the revamped squad was the East’s top team.

DeWitz, the team’s leading scorer at 21.0 points per game, said the team’s players and coaching staff meshed well together from the get-go.

“I had no expectations, I had no idea,” the ex-Oregon State player said, referring to his preseason outlook for the club.

“But I knew we had a lot of the key ingredients . . . and a good point guard (Hikaru Kusaka) who’s been in the league for a few years.”

DeWitz commended the play and leadership of Blackwell, calling him “the glue to our team” and said the athleticism of swingman Bobby St. Preux (20.0 ppg) and interior impact made by All-Star center Patrick Whearty have also been major story lines this season.

Sendai developed into a cohesive, pass-happy team. DeWitz, St. Preux and Blackwell have all been go-to scorers at different stages of the season, and Kusaka, Kenichi Takahashi and Hideki Katsumata have made their share of timely buckets, too.

The 89ers won 15 of 22 road games this season, and now they face back-to-back games over a two-day span against different foes.

So what’s Sendai’s mind-set entering this weekend?

The key is “to keep your mind on the big picture, the championship,” said DeWitz. “The focus is on the little stuff.”

The Apache closed out the regular season as the hottest team in the Eastern Conference, winning nine of their last 10 games and locking up second place on the season’s final day.

Thus, it’s no surprise that Bryant likes his team’s chances against the 89ers.

“We were 3-3 against them, easily could’ve been 5-1″ he noted.

The teams first met on Nov. 9 and Tokyo picked up a 103-84 road win. A day later, Sendai won 90-85.

On Dec. 1, Tokyo routed Sendai 99-75 at Ariake. Sendai won the rematch 109-100.

On March 1, the visiting 89ers topped the Apache 107-97. Tokyo earned the split with a 99-86 triumph on March 2.

Evessa center Jeff Newton was asked to offer his insight on this matchup during a telephone interview this week.

He responded by saying, “For the Apache, one of the keys to them winning is to get (center) Nick Davis involved in the game early and get him going (on the offensive end), because that team is going to feed off of him.

“For Sendai, the key is to keep Nick Davis off the glass and get their scorers into the game early offensively.”

DeWitz provided a different perspective in sizing up his team’s next foe.

“They are a tough team to really prepare for,” he said of the Apache. “They have guys that get hot at any time — John Humphrey and Cohey Aoki.”

Tokyo turns turnovers into quick points at the other end, DeWitz added.

Another story line to follow is this: The Aoki-Kusaka matchup has become a crowd-pleasing spectacle as the bj-league continues to add new franchises and expand its fan base.

“Cohey Aoki has a good game (in one game in a series) and Hikaru has a good game in the other,” DeWitz said, observing that they seem to thrive on the friendly, growing rivalry.

“It’s a good matchup for those guys and the fans.”

The same could be said about these teams squaring off for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the title game. Either team will earn its first appearance in the championship game.

“I really want to win the championship this year,” Apache guard Darin Satoshi Maki. “I’m happy we made (the) playoffs, but I’m not satisfied. I want to win the whole thing.”