Can home-court advantage help a terrible home team? That question has come up again and again for the Tokyo Apache this season.
Knowing full well their home record (1-10 before Tuesday night’s game) displeased their fans, the Apache faced a physical and mental fight against the Sendai 89ers, the Eastern Conference’s second-place team in the series final at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.
It often comes down to which team is more aggressive and efficient in the second half.
On this night, that turned out to be Tokyo, a 66-63 winner. In the series opener, Sendai won by two points.
Home wins have been so rare for the Apache that post-game music has not been of the type filtering through the speakers on Tuesday night. This time, Kool and The Gang’s “Celebration” pleased the home crowd.
All-Star center Julius Ashby paced Tokyo (8-18) with 21 points and nine rebounds, Michael Chappell scored 15, Rasheed Sparks had 14 and Jerrell Smith, a newcomer on the squad, had 10 big points off the bench, including six in the fourth quarter.
Yesterday’s close game “was good preparation,” Tokyo coach Motofumi Aoki said, adding praise for Chappell’s all-out hustle in 28 minutes (six rebounds and three steals).
For Sendai (17-11), Josh Peppers had team-best 18 points and Gyno Pomare had 15.
89ers coach Honoo Hamaguchi said he was not surprised by Tokyo’s resiliency and determination in the rematch.
“Today, Tokyo was as I expected them to play,” he told reporters in the post-game news conference.
The 89ers missed 13 of 15 3-point shots, ultimately a big factor in the loss. They also had a chance to put the game away with the clock stopped (28 free throws to Tokyo’s nine), but failed to do so.
The Apache held their biggest lead of the second half, 62-54, with 3:04 left in the fourth.
All-Star point guard Cohey Aoki, facing close defense throughout the night, scored his first points with 2:29 left, knocking down a pull-up jumper to make it 64-56.
After a helter-skelter scramble for the ball, Tokyo settled down and got Smith’s back-to-the-basket slam to go ahead 66-58. He added a block on Pomare’s shot at the other end seconds later, putting the Apache in the driver’s seat for a rare home win.
But the 89ers fought back. Kenichi Takahashi drained a line-drive 3 to slash the lead to 66-61.
Peppers followed with a layup, but missed a chance for a 3-point play. Holm grabbed the offensive board, giving Sendai’s offense new life in the final half-minute of action. On the next sequence, Takahashi missed a spot-up 3 and Peppers was off the mark on a high-angle shot from the left wing.
The Apache held a 49-45 advantage after three quarters.
Six Tokyo players had three fouls a minute into the fourth quarter, a sign of the game’s physical brand of ball.
The game maintained a hard-nosed feel to it as the minutes ticked down to the final buzzer.
Chris Holm, for one, clawed his way inside for high-percentage shots and worked overtime to convert a putback for a 51-48 lead. Seconds after a Sparks turnover, he returned the favor by taking a Sendai miscue and turning it into a breakaway jam on the other end to raise Tokyo’s lead to five.
Sparks equaled his point total from Saturday on the game’s first basket, a layup coming after Pomare’s turnover in the paint.
His 3-pointer put Tokyo ahead 7-5 with just less than five minutes left in the quarter. Then Holm’s thundering jam, courtesy of a thread-the-needle pass by Takahashi, made it 7-7.
Tokyo led 17-16 after one quarter, getting a big boost from Sparks’ leadership at the point (he had seven first-quarter points) and sharp ball movement.
In a tight second quarter, Ashby nailed a hook over the outstretched arms of Holm to give the Apache a 29-26 lead with 2:14 left before halftime, prompting the 89ers to call a timeout.
Peppers’ long 2-point shot in the final second of the half pulled the visitors within 31-30.
Coming off a 19-point game, Aoki had zero first-half points.