The league’s latest Cinderella team Link Tochigi Brex put up another great show in front of a full house of 3,202 at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 on Saturday.
They overcame a 13-point deficit on a 21-0 run in the final five minutes of the game as the second-year club cruised past the defending champion Aisin SeaHorses 88-77 in Game 1 of the Japan Basketball League Finals.
The team’s star duo Takuya Kawamura and Yuta Tabuse exploded as they scored 13 and 12 points, respectively, in the fourth quarter.
“I think it’s pretty significant we took the first game,” said Tabuse, who led the game with 27 points and five steals, after the game. “But Aisin is the reigning champion and you don’t want to think you can beat them easily tomorrow again.”
Game 2 of the best-of-five series will tip off at 3 p.m. on Sunday.
“It feels good. It’s one win in the five-game series, so we’re not celebrating,” Brex head coach Thomas Wisman said. “It’s not unusual for this team (to come back from behind). I was joking with Yuta the other day. I said if we are 12, 13 (points) down, there’s no problem. I think he thought I was serious.”
Link Tochigi clinched its Finals berth with a win over the Panasonic Trians in the decisive third game of the semifinals last Monday, in which it came back from 19 points down.
Trailing 70-57 in the final quarter on Saturday, the Brex’s league-best offense finally started to roll around Tabuse and Kawamura, while capitalizing on turnovers by the SeaHorses, to cut the gap to two with a Kawamura 3-pointer with about four minutes left.
With the game tied at 74 with some 2:30 left, Tabuse made an acrobatic jumper to give Link Tochigi a lead at 76-74 for the first time in the game.
Kawamura secured the win by adding eight points, including some key free-throws, inside 1:30.
Aisin, the two-time defending champion, was not able to add to its tally after hitting a 3 by point guard Shinsuke Kashiwagi with five minutes remaining.
Kawamura, the JBL leading scorer in the last two seasons, finished with 23 points, going 2-for-4 from the 3-point arc.
“The opponent is strong at rebounding, but we thought we’d be able to get some momentum by getting more boards and playing at a faster pace,” Kawamura said. “We put more pressure at high post defensively, and it worked out pretty well.”
The SeaHorses outrebounded 46-35 in the game, but in the second half Link Tochigi had more rebounds at 26 than its opponent’s 23.
The SeaHorses seized the momentum for much of the game before the final period. They relied on their inside players in MVP Kosuke Takeuchi and J.R. Sakuragi both offensively and defensively.
But they committed some crucial turnovers in the final quarter to allow Link Tochigi to draw near and eventually win the game.
“We got off to a good start and played at our own pace, as we were planning,” Aisin head coach Kimikazu Suzuki said. “We made the turnovers and allowed Kawamura and Tabuse to do whatever they wanted to.”
Reviewing the stats sheet and confirming the team created 20 turnovers, Suzuki added with a bitter smile that games are lost by making so many mistakes.
“We’ve never had a game like that,” the former Japan men’s national team coach said. “On a big stage like this, anything can happen. It was one of the worst games for us.”