Dominant SeaHorses win fourth-straight title

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Though they had to fight through a tough challenge from their opponents in the championship clincher, the three-time reigning champions maintained their mastery of the annual New Year’s tournament.

The Aisin SeaHorses put another Emperor’s Cup trophy on their mantle with a 81-74 overtime victory over the Panasonic Trians in the All-Japan Championship final at Yoyogi National Gymnasium on Monday afternoon.

Panasonic came back from a deficit as large as 15 points at one point, and sent the game into overtime in the final minutes. But Aisin forward J.R. Sakuragi came through with seven points, including a pair of free throws to secure the win, in the extra period.

A perennial Japan Basketball League powerhouse, Aisin has won a fourth-straight title in the 32-team tourney for the second time, matching its run from 2002-05.

“It’s a championship game,” said former UCLA player Sakuragi, who led his team with 21 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists, of the gutsy comeback by the Trians. “Panasonic deserves to be here. They’re a very good team. We didn’t win the game until the last minute or so. We had to fight all the way through.”

Newcomer Ryan Forehan-Kelly chipped in for the SeaHorses with 16 points, seven boards and five assists. The 30-year-old forward was key in the fourth quarter, single-handedly carrying the team by scoring 10 points.

“Obviously, (it’s) my firs time. I really had fun,” said Forehan-Kelly, who played his college ball at the University of California. “Especially, this, (which is) played in the midseason and almost reminds me of the NCAA tournament back home.

The SeaHorses also played an overtime game in the semifinals against the Hitachi Sunrockers (67-60).

“All the games were really tough games,” Forehan-Kelly added. “I’m very proud of my teammates because we showed a lot of character.”

Aisin took the lead early on and never gave it up to the Trians until late in the final period. Panasonic finally went ahead on a Hiroyuki Kinoshita 3-point shot with 2 minutes, 23 seconds left in the final quarter.

The SeaHorses let a golden opportunity to win the game slip through their hands, however. After a game-tying free throw by Forehan-Kelly, point guard Shinsuke Kashiwagi missed both free throws with 8 seconds remaining.

“I thought I shot them as I usually do,” said Kashiwagi, who had 14 points, eight rebounds and four steals. “But after I missed the first one, my feelings got out of tune a bit, and that resulted in sending the game into overtime.

“Had we lost, it would’ve been my responsibility.”

Meanwhile, the Panasonic players were in a somber mood.

“You don’t have this chance every year,” a teary-eyed Fumihiko Aono said. “So we wanted to win this tournament, and we believed we could win.”