The Tokyo Apache’s remarkable 2007-08 turnaround catapulted the team into the bj-league playoff semifinals. And a gritty, mettle-revealing performance on Saturday night pushed the team into the championship game against the Osaka Evessa.
The Apache prevailed 88-86 against the Sendai 89ers, the Eastern Conference regular-season champion, and earned a date against the league’s two-time defending champions.
“For me, it’s really special because last year we had a difficult year,” Apache coach Joe Bryant said seconds after commending both groups of fans for their support.
And how. The Apache were the bj-league’s worst team a season ago, finishing with a 12-28 record.
“You have to seize the moment to be a champion and that’s what we did—we seized the moment,” Bryant said.
“We need one more, we need one more, we need one more,” Bryant said, repeating that phrase several times in an excited voice
Sunday’s title match tips off at 4:30 p.m. at Ariake Colossuem, the scene of Saturday’s spirited struggle between the Apache and the 89ers, the seventh game the teams met this season.
Tokyo won the season series 4-3 and now has victories in 11 of its past 12 games.
89ers coach Honoo Hamagchi will now guide his team into the third-place game against the Rizing Fukuoka on Sunday.
“At the end we did our best. The second half was good. The defense was a bit (soft) and rebounding wasn’t the best we could do,” he said after Saturday’s loss.
The Apache took a 68-62 lead into the fourth quarter. Moments later, Sendai forward Bobby St. Preux, who scored a team-best 27 points, tied it at 70-70 on a slam dunk, driving through the lane for an uncontested shot.
The Apache answered, getting two baskets from John Humphrey (14 points) on their next two trips down the floor to make it 74-70.
Sendai battled back. Kenichi Takahashi’s scoop shot put his team ahead 75-74 with 5:11 to play.
In a tightly contested showdown, the Apache regained the lead, 80-79, on a Dameion Baker stickback with 2:32 to go.
The lead changed twice more over the next 42 seconds.
Then St. Preux sliced through the lane for a go-ahead layup, and it was 83-82.
Tokyo patiently moved the ball on its next possession and worked it inside to Baker, who muscled his way for a hard-earned deuce, giving the Apache the slimmest of leads, 84-83 with 46.4 seconds left on the game clock.
Baker had 26 points, nine rebounds and was 8-for-8 from the foul line, appearing relaxed and heeding the words of his coach who told him get a massage the day before the game to be loose for the big contest.
After a timeout, St. Preux dribbled the ball across the timeline and the team tried to get the ball inside to center Patrick Whearty, but Baker stole the pass, drove down the court and made a layup.
Sendai went for a 3-pointer on its next possession rather than going for a quick 2-point shot and then fouling to stop the clock. With top 3-point threat St. Preux covered tightly, the team opted to get the ball to Whearty, who misfired on a 3.
Hamaguchi said both a 2-pointer and a 3-pointer were good options, but he admitted he designed a play for a 3-point shot.
“It was not for Patrick, but for Bobby St. Preux,” the coach added.
“With 7 seconds left, I’m not the first option,” Whearty said, “but I had a good look at it. I haven’t shot many (3s) this year, and yes you can get a quick two, but for me to drive all the way from the 3-point line or take a 3 in that situation with 7 seconds left, you have to take it.”
Then Baker grabbed the rebound and Sendai was forced to foul.
Coney Aoki, the league’s free-throw shooting champ in 2005-06 and 2006-07, stepped for the one-and-one with 3.5 seconds left. He calmly sank both of them for his first two points of the half.
St. Preux nailed a 3 in the closing seconds for Sendai.
But it was too little to late.
“We let them jump out in the first and second periods and we made it really tough on ourselves,” a clearly disappointed St. Preux told reporters after the game.
Aoki provided a different perspective.
“It feels great. We finished dead last (in 2006-07),” he said. “We didn’t taste this atmosphere of the finals, so it feels great. Rather than pressure, I was so excited. We played the regular season to play in the playoffs.”
The diminutive point guard is confident about what’ll occur in the playoffs’ final game.
“We’re going to stop their three-peat,” he said of Osaka.
Tokyo led 24-16 after the first quarter.
The Apache took a 24-18 lead into the second quarter, getting 3-pointers from Aoki and Darin Satoshi Maki in the waning seconds of the high-energy quarter.