SENDAI – Home openers are always special.
But considering what the Tohoku region has endured since March 11, Saturday’s Sendai 89ers-Akita Northern Happinets game held greater significance than an ordinary opener.
The throngs of Sendai supporters, who were shouting “Go, go 89ers” throughout the game, weren’t treated to a win, but that was far from a real downer. Make no mistake: A bj-league game in Sendai for the first time in eight months was a victory in itself.
Happinets guard Michael Gardener, a star presence on the Rizing Fukuoka, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix and Takamatsu Five Arrows in past seasons, took control in the fourth quarter when he scored 13 of his game-high 23 points and Akita secured its fourth triumph in five games in this young season, winning 80-71 before a crowd of 5,064 at Sendai City Gymnasium.
“The game today was all about Michael Gardener going 6-for-10 from 3-point range,” Sendai coach Bob Pierce said. “There was nothing else in the game that was out of the ordinary, and Michael Gardener is talented enough that when he plays like that, what anyone else on either side does really doesn’t matter.”
He added: “When he’s on, he doesn’t miss. He’s probably one of the 10 best players in the history of the bj-league.”
Akita power forward Stanley Ocitti scored 19 points, while Kazuhiro Shoji had 12, Brandon Wallace poured in 11 and Kenny Taylor had six. The Happinets, who were led by Pierce during their inaugural 2010-11 season, made 16 of 24 free throws, while the 89ers attempted five.
“We kind of gave in to what the defense was giving us and settled for things rather than working hard for what we wanted,” Pierce said. “I don’t really think it was the pressure of (having a) home game.”
The 89ers collected 37 rebounds. Akita hauled in 51 boards, and Ocitti and Wallace each had nine.
Forward Dan Fitzgerald paced the 89ers with 19 points and eight rebounds. He was 4-for-11 on 3s and said he needs to shoot fewer shots from beyond the arc in Sunday’s rematch and be more aggressive on offense. Pierce said his team, which shot 30 3s (10 baskets) needs to get to the free-throw line on Sunday with more regularity.
O’Neal Mims had 16 points, three steals and three blocks for the 89ers. Guard Hikaru Kusaka had 15 points, Daisuke Takaoka poured in eight and Johnny Dukes scored six. Plagued by foul trouble, captain Takehiko Shimura had two points and three assists.
Playing its first home contest three weeks into its season, Sendai (3-2) entertained a packed house and a national audience on BS Fuji. And there was a big-game vibe throughout the gym.
As the game progressed, it became a showcase for Gardener’s all-league talents. Given space to operate, Gardener flushed back-to-back 3-pointers to put the Northern Happinets ahead 63-50 with just under 7 minutes remaining in the fourth. Facing their bigger margin of the game at that point, the 89ers got an inside bucket from Mims before Wallace’s slam pushed the lead back to 13.
Gardener’s teammates set double screens for him and he ran in zig-zag patterns around Sendai defenders, moving with purpose to get open and run the offense. He also had eight turnovers in the first three quarters, but that didn’t diminish his impact.
“Gardener makes things happen for his teammates,” said Akita coach Kazuo Nakamura. “He’s a wonderful athlete and he makes it easy for them, the team’s three big guys.”
For instance, after one drive-and-dish move, Gardener got the ball back and buried a 3-pointer to put Akita ahead 52-42 late in the third quarter. Sendai called a timeout and Kusaka sank a 3 to make it a seven-point game.
Sendai trailed 55-47 after three quarters.
The Happinets’ five third-quarter field goals were all from 3-point range. In addition, they held a 20-1 advantage in free-throw attempts at that point. Akita outmuscled the hosts for much of the game, holding a 42-27 on rebounds entering the fourth quarter, including 20 offensive boards, which led to repeated second-chance opportunities.
The Happinets started off slowly, falling behind 10-2 after Shimura’s driving layup. Then Akita roared back. A 12-0 spurt put the Happinets ahead 20-14 with 8:19 left in the second quarter.
Rapidly shooting 3-pointers in their quick-strike offense, Akita led the rest of the first half, but Sendai closed out the second quarter on a strong note. The 89ers slashed a 29-24 hole into a one-point deficit just before the break as Kusaka made one of his game-best four steals and fed the ball to Takuya Komoda, who converted a layup. That made it 32-31.
An hour before the game, Sendai team president Teruhisa Nakamura spoke on the court, thanking the fans and sponsors for their support.
Shimura also addressed the fans just before the opening tipoff. His heartfelt message to the boosters was received with spirited applause.
“We’re back, Shimura declared.
Shimura reminded the gathered crowd about the team’s difficult, abrupt departure from the league after the March 11 tragedy, but spoke with joy of the team’s revival.
“But today we are here,” he said as fans clapped.
The 89ers’ new foreign players grasped the wave of emotions that were a big part of the game.
“The atmosphere was great. The fans were awesome,” Fitzgerald said. “So they deserve wins; we’ve got to get better.”
“Today, just seeing everybody like that, it was a great fan turnout. . . . Having a great fan base is underrated. It’s pretty awesome to have a real home court. We need that home court, especially when we have games like these to make it a real advantage. But the fans were just great. Even after a loss they were all here, all smiling. . .”
As Miyagi Prefecture and Tohoku continue to rebuild after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, sports will retain a vital place in people’s lives.
“People lost family members, people lost everything, literally everything,” Fitzgerald said. “I can’t even fathom that, but for us to try and understand that and play for them, it’s a pretty special thing. . . . A lot of people in the city were waiting for something to cheer for and be happy about.”
After the game, Shimura summed up the feelings of many within the 89ers organization.
“We were happy together, boosters and players,” he said.
“It’s nice to be playing basketball back here in Sendai,” said Pierce.