The Ryukyu Golden Kings have established a new standard of excellence in the bj-league this season.
They won 12 consecutive games to start the season and 41 of 52 regular-season contests. They knocked off the three-time defending champion Osaka Evessa in the playoff semifinals on Saturday in a game that will still be called a classic in 100 years. And less than 24 hours later, they relied on old-fashioned teamwork to capture their first bj-league title on Sunday, topping the Tokyo Apache 89-82.
All five Golden Kings starters scored in double figures. Anthony McHenry, a Georgia Tech product, was the high scorer with 19 points, followed by Chris Ayer’s 17, Shigeyuki Kinjo’s 16, Naoto Takushi’s 13 and Jeff Newton’s 11.
“I didn’t think too much during the game,” Takushi said. “We just wanted to finish the season by winning.”
“It’s a team concept and not just give the ball to the Americans. It’s what made us such a good team this year,” added Ayer, praising first-year coach Dai Oketani’s system.
Ryukyu captured the title a year after enduring a 10-34 season as an expansion team and finishing in last place in the Western Conference.
“When the regular season started, I thought that this team could be the strongest team ever (in the league), because our players are great team players as well as great individuals,” Oketani said. “They play team offense and defense collectively.”
Indeed, times have changed for Okinawa’s first major professional sports franchise.
“I’m so pleased that we won it after finishing last,” Kinjo said. “I heard the boosters’ cheer clearly. This is a result of our effort to have worked as a team.”
Tokyo was plagued by foul trouble for 40 minutes, and three starters fouled out: center Nick Davis (five points, 11 rebounds, five assists), small forward John Humphrey (12 points) and shooting guard Masashi Joho (four points).
“I thought we came out and established dominance and held our own,” Ayer said. “We struggled against Osaka last night but went right to it today.”
The Apache were whistled for 30 fouls to Ryukyu’s 18. Tokyo coach Joe Bryant was disgusted by this fact.
“To call 30 fouls on one team and only 18 on the other, when we are an offense that attacks the basket, you don’t blame it on the officials, but the officials turned the game,” said Bryant, who watched his team lose in the championship game for the second consecutive year.
“It seems like when we were down three (in the fourth quarter), there were these ‘Casper ghost’ fouls.
“One official, No. 14 (Takeshi Jitozono), I don’t think he made one call for the Tokyo Apache. For example, he was standing next to me on one play and Baker got fouled, got slapped in the hand and he didn’t call it and (fellow official) Tim (Greene) had to call it from halfcourt. A few weeks ago, (Jitozono) told me, ‘I’m a referee. I never make mistakes.’ “
Tokyo, however, appeared physically overmatched throughout of the game, with Ayer, Newton and McHenry setting the tone in the frontcourt and Takushi and Kinjo operating effectively on the perimeter and slashing through traffic in the lane.
With his team trailing 77-70, Apache forward Dameion Baker, who scored a team-high 20 points, left the game with an injury with 2:42 remaining. He was on the floor for several minutes and required assistance to return to the bench.
“Poor Baker, we think he tore his left Achilles tendon,” Bryant said. “Baker will probably get surgery tomorrow. If Tokyo Apache had won today, he would have been MVP of this tournament.”
Julius Ashby, who had 15 points, cut it to 77-72 on a pair of free throws at the 2:10 mark. Then Takushi extended the Ryukyu lead to seven on a jumper with 1:59 left.
In the final minute, McHenry, Kinjo and Yosuke Sugawara combined to make eight free throws to seal the win.
Jun Iwasa, who stepped up on offense in the season’s final game, knocked down three 3-pointers, including two in the fourth. His final 3-pointer made it 85-80 with 28 seconds left.
Then Sugawara drained the final two foul shots with 26 seconds left to make it 87-80.
Ryukyu led 25-18 after one quarter and held an eight-point advantage at halftime.
The Golden Kings took their biggest lead of the game, 77-64, with 4:41 left in the fourth quarter.
“I’m totally disappointed that the game turned out this way,” Bryant said in the postgame news conference. “Let the players decide (the game). If this was a two-game series, the next game the fouls would’ve been reversed. I’ve seen it in my four years in the league.”
In the third-place game, the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix defeated the Osaka Evessa 91-85.
The Evessa outscored the Phoenix 36-20 in the final period to make up for a lackluster performance in the first three quarters.
Stanley Ocitti had an 18-point performance to lead Hamamatsu, while Marcus Morrison had 15 points and Sun Ming Ming added 13.
For Osaka, Nile Murry knocked down six 3-pointers and scored 34 points. Teammate Lynn Washington added 26 and 14 rebounds.