Since losing to the Osaka Evessa in the bj-league championship game last season, the Tokyo Apache have had one goal in mind: to earn a championship this season.
Right now, the Apache face a pivotal stretch of the season that should test their championship mettle.
After a pair of one-sided losses to the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix last weekend, the Apache had to regroup for a rare midweek series at Yoyogi National Gymnasium against the Niigata Albirex BB. And they had to do so without two of their best players — shooting guard John “Helicopter” Humphrey, the bj-league’s scoring champion in 2005-06 and 2006-07, and center Nick Davis, who are sidelined for an estimated one month and two weeks, respectively.
And now it’s back to the drawing board for the Apache (18-11), who sustained an 86-68 loss to the Albirex.
Niigata (13-16) took control of the game in the fourth quarter, outscoring Tokyo 30-14. All-Star guard Akitomo Takeno had 10 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth. He was perfect from the field, hitting all eight field goals, including five from 3-point range, and hit all five free throws. Center Dokun Akingbade added 20 points and 19 rebounds to give the Albirex a potent inside-outside attack.
Apache coach Joe Bryant said, “Number zero for Niigata (Takeno), he came and had a helluva game today. He scores 16 in the second quarter and then scores 10 in the fourth quarter. He was the difference. He was the one that really beat us.”
Niigata coach Masaya Hirose said his team’s set offense was efficient and did a nice job of handling Tokyo’s high-pressure defense. He characterized his team’s performance as “getting the job done,” including a 54-40 edge on the boards.
The rematch is slated for 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and this storyline remains — and will continue — for Tokyo in its upcoming series on Feb. 14-15 against the Toyama Grouses at Ariake Colosseum.
“I thought the thought the rest of the guys played hard and didn’t give up,” Bryant said, sizing up the impact of Davis and Humphrey’s absence.
Takeno poured in 16 first-half points for the Albirex, hitting four 3-pointers in that span. Teammate Emmanuel Little nailed a running floater with 3 seconds left in the half to put Niigata ahead 44-39 at the break.
Masashi Joho scored 14 first-half points for the Apache, driving aggressively to the basket and swishing a pair of 3s. Tizzo Johnson was Tokyo’s other double-digit scorer before intermission.
Both teams pulled down 25 first-half rebounds. This kept the lead in single digits throughout the first and second quarters.
In the third quarter, Tokyo pulled ahead 45-44 on a Cohey Aoki basket at the 7:54 mark. Joho drained a 3-pointer from the right wing to make it 48-44 seconds later.
The Albirex retook the lead, 50-48, on Akingbade’s tip-in at the 4:38 mark and led by six after an Antonio Burks jumper. But the pesky Apache capitalized on their energy to trim the deficit. Forward Tomoya Nakamura, on his 26th birthday, pulled down an offensive board and scored on the putback, and on Tokyo’s next trip down the floor Aoki dribbled past three defenders en route to a hard-earned layup to pull the Apache within 54-52 at the 2:11 mark.
Then Joho made a steal (he had four) on an errant pass, catching it like a shortstop leaps up to grab an infield flare, and immediately turned the play into a fast-break opportunity. He dished the ball to Johnson on a 2-on-1 and the big fellow jammed it through the net to tie the game at 54.
Niigata led 56-54 after three quarters. Takeno didn’t score and didn’t attempt a shot in the third quarter. He played two minutes in the period, instead resting up for his big fourth-quarter performance.
Leading 59-54, the Albirex used a 10-2 spurt to take a 69-56 lead with 4:50 left in the game. Akingbade had back-to-back slam dunks. Tokyo misfired on several long-range shots during this key stretch of the quarter.
Takeno sealed the victory by knocking down a 3-pointer over Jumpei Nakama, making it 82-66 with 1:26 left.
Joho led Tokyo with 16 points and Aoki and Johnson had 14 apiece.