OTSU, Shiga Pref. — The Shiga Lakestars posted a loss in their first-ever game, but the outcome wasn’t decided until the final buzzer.
For the bj-league expansion team, an 81-78 defeat to the Osaka Evessa produced its first-ever collective emotion: a sense of accomplishment on Saturday afternoon as it walked off the court.
“Our guys fought until the very last second of the game, and that’s all we can ask for,” Shiga coach Robert Pierce said moments after the game at Shiga Prefectural Gymnasium, where a crowd of 2,528 spectators gathered to usher in the 2008-09 bj-league season.
“We knew we had a chance.”
Lakestars point guard Takamichi Fujiwara attempted a game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer, but his shot was off the mark.
The score, however, wasn’t indicative of the underlying emotion in the Shiga locker room after the game.
“We just took the three-time defending champion to the very last second,” Pierce said, his voice overflowing with pride.
“I think our players came away with a lot of confidence in themselves.”
The new rivals meet up in the series final on Sunday at 2 p.m.
Evessa power forward Lynn Washington scored a game-high 31 points and grabbed 12 rebounds before fouling out late in the fourth quarter. He also made Osaka’s only 3-point shot (the team took 18 attempts), with the much-needed points coming in the final stanza.
Evessa coach Kensaku Tennichi admitted he was surprised his team struggled so much with its long-rang shooting. He shook his head and smiled after a reporter asked him about it. Nile Murry, Osaka’s new starting point guard was 0-for-6 from 3-point range, but finished with nine points and three steals.
Tennichi did say, however, strong rebounding was a key in the season-opening victory.
Center Ryan Schafer muscled his way inside to score the first basket in Shiga history, a layup with 9:08 to play in the opening quarter. That tied the game at 2-2.
Moments later, fueled by the emotion of playing their first game before the hometown supporters, the Lakestars went on a 13-2 spurt to take an 18-6 lead. Shiga converted inside shots with regularity and took advantage of Osaka’s defensive lapses during the run.
After a timeout, Washington provided the spark the Evessa needed to get their offense back in gear. He scored three straight baskets to ignite a 9-0 run and pull his team to within 18-15.
“I was just doing what Coach Ten (Tennichi) requires me to do,” said Washington, a two-time league MVP. “I was just trying to put the ball in the basket.”
Shiga led 23-21 after one quarter.
In a well-played second quarter, neither team led by more than three points. But sharpshooter Bobby Nash, a former University of Hawaii player, had a team-best 14 first-half points for Shiga, helping his team walk off the court trailing by just three, 45-42, at the break.
Osaka, however, controlled the glass in the first half, holding an 11-4 edge in offensive rebounds.
The Lakestars received a big offensive boost from forward Brayden Billbe in the second half. He scored 17 of his team-best 28 points after the intermission, effectively working his way inside for layups, putbacks and high-percentage shots in the lane. He also pulled down 15 boards.
But the Evessa had an inside answer of their own: center and newcomer Justen Naughton, who led all players with 10 offensive rebounds and 17 overall. He also scored 12 points. Osaka’s other double-digit scorers were Nick DeWitz (13) and Kazuya Hatano (10).
Naughton’s hustle plays inside gave the Evessa numerous second-shot opportunities on an afternoon when the team failed to hit the long-range shot with any consistency.
“In practice you hate to go up against him,” Washington said of the 205-cm Naughton. “But when you play with him you’re glad. I think he was the deciding factor in the game.”
A 10-2 run in the third quarter also boosted Osaka’s chances to win, giving it a 61-53 advantage after a DeWitz deuce.
Early in the fourth, Shiga pulled within four on two occasions. Washington answered with scores in both instances to push the lead back to six.
Washington’s 3-ball made it 79-72 with about three minutes remaining, but an inspired effort by Fujiwara, who dove for loose balls and knocked over an advertisement, helped rally his team down the stretch.
Billbe nailed two inside shots to make it a 79-78 game with 9.8 left on the game clock.
Naoto Nakamura sank two foul shots with 2.2 seconds left to account for the game’s final points, and his only points of the opener.
Speaking candidly before a throng of reporters about 45 minutes after missing the final shot of the game, the 30-year-old Fujiwara said his young team will need to gain better mental control this season.
Nash, 24, offered a different perspective.
“In the first game, we had a lot of support (from the fans),” he said. “It was a great test, playing the defending champions in a close game.”
Also Saturday, the Ryukyu Golden Kings defeated the Rizing Fukuoka 108-90 in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture.