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Alvark end SeaHorses’ domination

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Aisin SeaHorses certainly showed their potential with a powerful rally late in the game.

But the Toyota Alvark never backed down and succeeded in stripping the Emperor’s Cup from the four-time defending champions.

Philip Ricci made a slam dunk with 17 seconds left in the final quarter, denying Aisin’s fierce comeback, as Toyota edged the SeaHorses 69-65 in the men’s final of the 87th All-Japan Championship at Yoyogi National Gymnasium on Monday afternoon. It was Toyota’s second triumph in the year-opening, annual tournament.

“It was a championship-level game,” Toyota head coach Donald Beck said after the game. “I thought the game was very balanced. (I’m) extremely satisfied with the win, very satisfied with the game.”

Ricci had a team-high 13 points and grabbed eight boards, and Taishi Ito chipped in with 11 points for Toyota.

The first quarter belonged to the SeaHorses as they finished with a 17-13 lead. But the Alvark prevailed in the second and entered the half at 42-30, and widened the lead to as much as 16 points in the third.

It was Aisin’s turn in the fourth quarter, and it made a strong comeback as Anthony Richardson came through to cut the deficit to 2 with less than 1 minute left.

But the Alvark wouldn’t yield. After Aisin again drew within two points with a basket-count play by Richardson, Ito sank a difficult jumper before Ricci’s championship-clinching slam.

“It was a hard-fought game,” said Ricci, who played college ball at Oregon State University. “It was a dogfight. We made a couple of good runs, but (Aisin) answered toward to the end.”

The SeaHorses fell short of achieving their fifth consecutive — eighth overall — Emperor’s Cup.

“Against Toyota, we could’ve managed a one-digit deficit, but it consumes so much energy to come back from double digits down,” said Aisin head coach Kimikazu Suzuki. “Our players managed to rally, but we were short of making shots at the very end.”

For Aisin, Japan national team point guard Shinsuke Kashiwagi and former UCLA player J.R. Sakuragi scored 17 apiece, followed by Richardson’s 13. Sakuragi had 10 rebounds as well. Richardson scored 12 in the fourth.

Kashiwagi said that the SeaHorses were too short of gas to win the game in the closing minutes.

“We had the confidence that we could still win the game if we did what we were supposed to do,” he said of the final-quarter rally. “But honestly, we used so much energy to get there (making it within two points down) and couldn’t just make any more shots.”

Meanwhile, second-year American coach Beck said he didn’t even know of Aisin’s winning streak in the All-Japan tourney, saying the reigning champ would simply be a tough opponent to beat.

“I know they’re a very successful team,” said Beck, who previously coached the Luxembourg national team. “So we knew what we were up against. That’s a good team, hell of a team.

“So we kind of focused on them, stopping J.R., but really, we focused on us, what we need to do.”