The Osaka Evessa booked a spot in the bj-league championship game for a third consecutive season, routing the upstart Rizing Fukuoka 100-73 in Saturday’s first semifinal game at Ariake Colosseum.
Point guard Matt Lottich, one of the cornerstones of the two-time champions’ success, had the hot hand early. He scored 21 first half-points and finished with a game-high 30 on 11-of-16 shooting, including five 3-pointers.
“I was trying to feed off my teammates,” Lottich said later. “I had a lot of open looks” due to Fukuoka’s zone defense.
He added: “I got into a groove early. . .and fortunately my shots were going in.”
Osaka improved to 5-2 against its pesky Western Conference opponent and will play in Sunday’s title game against the Tokyo Apache.
“We are just excited to be here,” Lottich said. “Our goal was to get here and get in the championship game. I’m not sure if we’ll sleep much tonight.”
Lynn Washington, who provided 26 points, 14 rebounds and five assists in a performance that officially registers that he’s back in a big way from his knee injury, told reporters after the game that he wants to face the Apache in the title game.
“It would be really nice to play them tomorrow and beat them,” he said, citing his early season knee injury against the Apache in Osaka.
“At the beginning of the year I promised our fans we would three-peat, so I don’t want to break promises.”
After the win, Evessa coach Kensaku Tennichi said the team focused on defense during its playoff preparations. “On the white board, I wrote up key points for the game, with No. 1 being turnovers, No. 2 (being) offensive rebounds, because we shoot a lot of 3-pointers, and I couldn’t remember the third point.”
Indeed, Tennichi will not forget the superb effort his team gave in reaching the title game.
The Evessa scored 53 first-half points, taking a 13-point lead over the Rizing into the intermission. They had 24 assists and only 10 turnovers. They outrebounded Fukuoka 56-40. They took 30 free throws (making 22) to their foe’s 14.
“The Evessa played an excellent basketball game,” Rizing coach John Neumann said. “And we didn’t use the intensity that was needed defensively tonight.”
Lottich’s superb outing, which included 12 rebounds and seven assists, didn’t come as a surprise to Neumann.
“Matt Lottich is a good friend of mine,” the coach admitted. “He’s a great player. He hit three NBA-range 3-pointers. If he doesn’t hit those 3-pointers, it’s a different game.”
In the third quarter, the Rizing used a 13-4 run capped by a Michael Gardener layup to cut the lead to 59-53 midway through the period. In that spurt, Joshua Peppers, the league’s second-leading scorer, nailed two 3s. Then the Evessa called a timeout at the 6:06 mark.
The Rizing pulled within 63-57 moments later when Gardener collected a steal and dished the ball to Tsuyoshi Kawazura, who converted a layup.
After the Rizing cut the lead to six, Tennichi changed the team’s defense from zone to man-to-man.
“Peppers is a very good player, he was getting hot and so we had to adjust the whole defense,” the coach added.
Fukuoka never got closer the rest of the way and trailed 71-59 after three quarters.
“We had to seize the opportunity. . .but we had to make shots. We didn’t and made turnovers,” Neumann lamented. “and then they got the lead back to 10, 12.”
Osaka turned it up a notch in the fourth quarter, putting 29 points on the board and holding Fukuoka to 14.
Mikey Marshall (19 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocks) tried to punctuate the Evessa win with a windmill slam dunk in the closing seconds but missed it. The ball then wound up in Naoto Nakamura’s hands and he drained a 3-pointer to account for the game’s final score. Nakamura scored 13 and Jeff Newton had a 12-point, eight-rebound, six-block effort.
Parker, who led the league in steals at 2.6 per game, said the two-time champs were the tone-setters.
“They controlled the ball,” he said of Osaka. “We didn’t pressure enough. . . . Two times we came back (to six points), and I thought we were going to catch them, but they hit big shots.”
Peppers scored a team-high 18 points for the Rizing, but missed seven of 10 3-point shots. As a team, the Rizing were 6-for-24 from beyond the arc and 23-of-52 from 2-point range.
Neumann said his team didn’t play with the same intensity as in its wild-card win over the Takamatsu Five Arrows on April 20, “They all played average. Tonight we didn’t step up enough,” he said bluntly.
Then he paused before adding, “We hope to be back here next year.”
After the game, Kawazura offered this assessment of his feelings: “I was disappointed. It doesn’t feel good, not getting a ring this season is unsatisfying.”