Time after time, championship teams make in-game adjustments better than your run-of-the-mill opponent.
Basketball fans were reminded of that fact on Wednesday night at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2, where the Ryukyu Golden Kings soared to brilliant heights after a slow start en route to a 75-70 triumph over the Tokyo Apache.
It was the teams’ first meeting since the 2008-09 bj-league title game, a game Ryukyu won 89-82 on May 17 when Joe Bryant, then in his fourth season at the helm, coached the Apache. Bryant has left the team, a new ownership group is in place and the Apache fell to 5-12 after their fifth straight loss.
It came as no surprise that Jeff Newton made the biggest impact on the game. The superstar center had 16 points, 14 rebounds and five assists, leading his team in all three categories. George Leach added 15 points, high-energy reserve Bryan Simpson scored 14 (three dunks) and Anthony McHenry had 13 as Ryukyu improved to 14-3.
Leach carried the Golden Kings on his broad shoulders early in the third quarter, setting up shop in the paint for short hook shots, layups, tip-ins and a thunderous dunk (compliments of Newton, his ex-Indiana University teammate, on an alley-oop, a play they’ve perfected during hundreds of practices on both sides of the Pacific).
The aforementioned slam put Ryukyu ahead 47-36 with 4:41 left in the quarter. Leach had eight third-quarter points and his team dashed confidently into the final stanza with a 53-46 lead and only six turnovers on the stat sheet.
Other numbers jumped out at you, and that was even before the final box score was handed out:
• Tokyo had 15 personal fouls through three quarters to Ryukyu’s four.
• The Golden Kings attempted 18 free throws (sank nine) and the Apache were 1-for-2 at the line in that span.
In one eye-opening stretch during the fourth quarter, Newton and McHenry recorded consecutive blocked shots in the low blocks.
But there was plenty of last-minute drama, too. The Golden Kings created unnecessary tension for themselves, missing consecutive one-and-ones (and shot 17-for-31 at the line), and Tokyo converted on the other end to cut it to 72-70 in the final minute, with clutch baskets by Takanori Goya sandwiched around two Rasheed Sparks shots.
Yosuke Sugawara, who scored eight points, put the finishing touches on Ryukyu’s win by draining two free throws with 12.6 seconds left to make it 74-70. With 3.4 ticks on the clock, Newton knocked down the first of two shots, getting a high shooter’s bounce as the ball dropped through the rim for the game’s final point.
“In tomorrow’s game, we’ll fight until the end,” Tokyo coach Motofumi Aoki said.
After the game, Aoki said the Apache lost momentum in the second quarter and that was a big challenge to overcome for the rest of the game. He also described Simpson’s slams as “super dunks.”
Julius Ashby paced the Apache with 20 points, Cohey Aoki scored 15, and Michael Chappell had 12.
From the outset, Ryukyu’s shooting was as cool as a walk-in freezer, shooting 1-for-14 (7.1 percent) from 2-point in the first quarter, including a number of misses from close range. Newton was 0-for-7 in that span, failing to convert on a large number of shots.
Tokyo ended the first quarter on a 14-4 spurt — it began with a Reina Itakura jumper and back-to-back baskets by Aoki — to take a 22-12 lead. Nine of the Golden Kings’ opening quarter points came from 3-point range, with Tsubasa Yonamine knocking down a pair of 3s. They began scoring in droves from close range in the second quarter.
The Golden Kings closed the gap to 24-22 on Simpson’s dunk after stripping the ball from Aoki at the other end, and they tied it at 24-24 on McHenry’s spinning, driving, difficult-to-block layup.
Ryukyu continued to push the ball, attack the basket and recognize the open man on the perimeter. In other words, they were doing the things championship teams excel at.
Take Newton, for example. The 2008-09 regular-season and playoff MVP was 4-for-5 from the field and had a team-high 10 second-quarter points, outscoring Tokyo by himself. As a team, the Golden Kings outscored Tokyo 21-8 and led 33-30 at the break.
And as their defense maintained its trademark form, the Golden Kings helped curtail the hot-shooting Apache, who were 8-for-13 on 2s in the opening quarter but 10-for-24 in the second period.