March Madness is a staple of American popular culture, one of sports’ true treasures.
Japanese basketball has nothing quite like college hoops’ annual spring extravaganza in the United States, but Thursday’s bj-league clash at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 offered a decent one-night alternative. It wasn’t pure madness, but it was pure entertainment and fierce competition rolled into 40 minutes of on-court excitement.
The Sendai 89ers held off a pesky Tokyo Apache team 89-85 to extend its winning streak to 10 straight games.
Tokyo (14-25) saw its four-game victory streak snapped.
For Sendai (27-12), Gyno Pomare had a team-best 26 points, Josh Peppers scored 20, including nine in the fourth quarter, All-Star center Chris Holm added 17 points and 16 rebounds and Kenichi Takahashi had 13. Sendai finished with 19 assists and seven turnovers, a recipe for success in any game.
Sendai was 11-for-16 at the line in the decisive fourth quarter, while the Apache converted 2 of 5 shots in the final period and shot a woeful 12-for-24 for the entire game.
Julius Ashby paced Tokyo with 20 points and 15 boards, Cohey Aoki scored 18, Rasheed Sparks had 17 and Michael Chappell chipped in with 12.
In the fourth quarter, Tokyo faced 76-69 and 78-71 deficits, but pulled within five both times. Then it was a seven-point game again and an Aoki 3-pointer cut it to 80-76 with just over 2 minutes left.
A basket and a free throw later, the lead was back up to seven with 1;47 to play. Less than a minute later, Tokyo had a chance to make it a one-possession game when Aoki was fouled by Takehiko Shimura while attempting a 3-pointer with 57.5 seconds left.
Aoki, a three-time league free-throw shooting champion, was 1-for-3 at the charity stripe in that golden opportunity, but he still slashed the deficit to 83-80.
On its next possession, Peppers’ driving layup gave Sendai a little breathing room and an 85-80 lead.
Chappell then drained a 3 and the lead was down to 85-83 with 12.5 seconds left.
Immediately fouled after Chappell’s hoop, Takahashi’s two free throws gave the visitors an 87-83 lead.
Chappell’s next 3 missed its target, and Takahashi was back at the line with 6.6 seconds remaining. He made them both, and Sparks scored a layup just before the final buzzer for the game’s final points.
Peppers’ nine fourth-quarter points proved vital to his team’s effort; the same could be said for Aoki’s 10, which sparked Tokyo’s comeback.
The Apache trailed by 10 points on three occasions in the third quarter, but chipped away at the lead and tied it 60-60 in the final minute — with added production off the bench from forward Jerrell Smith — then took a short-lived 61-60 lead on Ashby’s high-bouncing free throw seconds later.
Sendai regained the lead, however, and held the slimmest of margins, 62-61 entering the final stanza.
The teams came out with a high level of energy in the first quarter, playing an up-tempo brand of basketball. Sticking to their typical game plan, the 89ers moved the ball on the perimeter and inside with equal precision, getting seven first-quarter assists and eight points from Pomare to lead the way.
Tokyo trailed 23-21 after the opening quarter.
The second quarter featured more of the same: five ties (nine overall before the break), powerful slam dunks by Ashby and Sparks and a quarter-ending alley-oop by Peppers. That gave Sendai a 45-42 lead at the intermission.
Neither team put together a big run in the first two quarters. The quality of offense and defense was nearly identical for both teams, giving both coaches plenty to be happy about at the break.
Ashby, coming off a 26-point game and a 16-point fourth-quarter effort (8-for-8 shooting) against the Saitama Broncos on March 18, maintained his hot-as-the-Sahara-Desert shooting form in the first half with 17 points on 8-for-11 shooting. Pomare was Sendai’s top scorer with 16 points in that span.
The 89ers’ team play and passing was better, though. Sendai had 13 assists to Tokyofs four; the Apache exhibited an over-reliance on one-on-one play.
Tokyo’s bench had zero first-half points, while Sendai’s contributed 10, seven by Nick DeWitz.