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Newton, Washington reunited in Ryukyu-Osaka semifinal clash

by Ed Odeven

When future historians document the early years of the bj-league, they’ll spend plenty of time chronicling the achievements of Jeff Newton and Lynn Washington.

Together, the former Indiana University teammates helped the Osaka Evessa win three consecutive bj-league championships.

This season, both players have helped their respective teams reach the Final Four. Newton now plays for the Ryukyu Golden Kings.

Washington, a two-time bj-league MVP (2005-06, 2007-08), and Newton, this season’s MVP, lead their squads into Saturday’s Western Conference final at Ariake Colosseum. Tipoff is 3:30 p.m.

Ryukyu, which won the Western Conference regular-season title with a 41-11 record, including six wins in eight games against Osaka, advanced to the Final Four with a pair of home victories over the Rizing Fukuoka on May 5-6.

Osaka was 35-17 in the regular season and outlasted the Takamatsu Five Arrows in a tantalizing opening-round series. Washington carried the Evessa in the 10-minute “mini-game” tiebreaker, scoring 16 of the team’s 31 points in that span, to secure a spot in the conference final.

“Okinawa and Osaka, that’s going to be a great matchup,” Tokyo Apache coach Joe Bryant said, “especially with Jeff Newton and Washington going against each other. And then with us and Hamamatsu, it’s going to be a wonderful weekend.”

The Eastern Conference final, the Apache vs. the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, is slated for 7 p.m. The winners of the conference finals advance to Sunday’s title game at 4 p.m., and the third-place contest is set for 1 p.m.

First and foremost, Newton embraces the challenge of facing his ex-teammate Washington, the league’s second-leading scorer (25.9 points per game), in the playoffs.

“With Lynn, he’s a great scorer, so we are going to throw a lot of looks on him,” said Newton, explaining Ryukyu’s defensive strategy. “We’ll use a lot of different matchups and help is going to come from a lot of different places.

“With a great scorer, you’ve got to keep mixing it up.”

Golden Kings coach Dai Oketani said he expects the Evessa to use a zone defense off and on during the game. He prepared his players for this, telling them “we are going to attack their zone defense in practice.”

Ryukyu brings a high-powered offense into this game. Newton is the squad’s leading scorer (17.9 ppg), but the capable passing of forward Anthony McHenry (4.7 assists per game) and point guard Naoto Takushi (4.4 apg) gives the offense a diversified attack. Newton and Takushi were both named to the league’s Best Five Team, joining power forward Washington.

Shigeyuki Kinjo, Ryukyu’s starting shooting guard, was named the league’s Most Improved Player. He averaged 13.2 ppg and made 115 3-pointers, up from 9.9 ppg and 40 3-pointers in 2007-08, the Golden Kings’ inaugural season, when the team went 10-34.

“In the Final Four, every team brings a defensive intensity,” Oketani said, “and that is probably the reason why they (the officials) are not going to call many fouls.

“We have to play as hard as possible and we are going to play as hard as possible to get our shot (to win the title).”

Hernando Planells, who coached Ryukyu for the 2007-08 season, remained an avid follower of his former team over the past several months. He’s now the basketball coach and athletic director at Hopewell Academy in Cary, N.C.

“I’m glad to see the Kings being the favorites to win it all,” he wrote in an e-mail this week. “They made some good moves, deciding on spending money for imports, plus Naoto and Shige (Kinjo) have continued to improve.

“I have to say it was tough being away this year but I am so proud of the guys who are still there.”

It’s been nearly two months since Osaka and Ryukyu squared off on the court. On March 28, the host Golden Kings earned an 85-79 victory. The Evesssa won the series finale, 69-68.

Osaka coach Kensaku Tennichi’s squad hobbled into the playoffs with a bit of uncertainty due to the absence of starting small forward Kazuya Hatano (ankle) and starting shooting guard Naoto Nakamura (leg), with Shota Konno and Jun Nakanishi playing prominent roles in the Evessa’s first playoff win against the Five Arrows on May 2.

Konno scored a season-high 19 points in the game and Nakanishi followed suit with a season-best 18-point performance.

It’s unclear if Hatano and Nakamura will step onto the court or play major minutes in the Final Four. But Tennichi has spoken many times about the solid all-around contributions both players have made for the club, especially in big games.

Point guard Nile Murry and veteran forward Ryan Blackwell have made key contributions for the Evessa — Murry joined the team before the season, while Blackwell was an important midseason pickup — and have plenty of motivation to vie for their first bj-league championship rings this weekend.

For the Golden Kings, forwards Chris Ayer, a former Oita Heat Devils player, and Bryan Simpson had vital but unglamorous roles at both ends of the court, helping transform the club into a title contender.

“I think what Okinawa has done is they’ve put together the pieces of the puzzle,” Bryant said, praising the energy Newton and Simpson and Ayer, whom he calls a “professional rebounder,” bring to the mix.

“(Takushi) is a tough cookie, man,” Bryant added. “He can get a triple-double any time. He passes, he shoots, he has the fantasy of the game, and Kinjo is just lighting it up — and the coach has given them confidence to play at that high level. Okinawa is a very good team.”

Newton and his teammates face a tremendous test on Saturday: a date with destiny against the three-time defending champions.

This game has all the makings of a classic.