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Happinets shrug off slow start to rout sluggish Jets

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

You could argue that Friday night’s game was the biggest contest in the brief history of the Chiba Jets, what with the Akita Northern Happinets, the Eastern Conference co-leaders, visiting town and the hosts playing their first bj-league game in nearly a month.

It started off in exhilarating fashion for Jets fans — Chiba jumped out to a 15-2 lead to start the game — but the Jets failed to maintain that brilliance the rest of the way in a frustrating 90-65 loss at extremely chilly Yachiyo City Gymnasium.

The long layoff clearly was a factor as Jets played well in spurts, but looked out of rhythm for large stretches of the game.

“We need to play better inside and make more shots,” Jets coach Eric Gardow said after the game, acknowledging the team “was a little rusty.”

Jamel Staten scored a game-high 29 points for Chiba (10-13) and Maurice Hargrow had 14, while Reina Itakura added eight points. The Jets finished with 24 turnovers, and their interior defense was ineffective.

Forward Yuki Kikuchi paced Akita with 21 points, including 5-for-8 from 3-point range, E.J. Drayton had 20 and Ricky Woods scored 17 and grabbed 14 rebounds.

Though the Jets kept All-Star Kazuhiro Shoji (two points, 1-for-3 shooting) in check, Kikuchi stepped up for Akita.

“It was a great game for him,” Gardow said of Kikuchi. “We can’t let that happen tomorrow.”

The Happinets collected 20 steals to the Jets’ five as bench boss Kazuo Nakamura’s club improved to 16-9.

“We were just trying to play hard,” said Woods, who led the victors with five steals.

“The team must continue to play hard and focus on games,” Akita coach Kazuo Nakamura said.

Nakamura cited concentration on defense and guard Michael Kearse’s speed and ability to change the pace of the game as keys to victory.

The Jets opened the game on a 15-2 run, including two Staten 3-pointers. Kikuchi’s 3-ball cut it to 15-5, followed by newcomer Kearse’s uncontested layup. Seconds later, Stanley Ocitti grabbed an offensive board and took it strong to the rack for a putback, and suddenly it was 15-9. Kearse quickly added a layup on a crafty backdoor cut and the lead slipped to four as Gardow shouted to his players to pick up their intensity.

The quarter ended with the Jets ahead 15-11. Their nine first-quarter turnovers reduced their scoring opportunities drastically. Akita collected seven steals in the opening frame.

The Happinets’ resurgence continued in the second stanza as Akita scored the first 13 points of the quater, getting eight straight points from Kikuchi to cap the game-changing spurt. In total, 22-0 spurt spanning the first and second quarters put the visitors ahead 24-15.

Hargrow’s jumper ended the run, but Drayton sank two free throws to push the lead to 26-17 with 7:06 left before halftime.

The onslaught continued. It was 34-17 after three consecutive driving layups by Woods, meaning the out-of-towners had gone on a 30-2 run since the scoreboard looked this way: Chiba 15, Akita 2.

Then Kearse drained a pulled-up J, followed by Woods’ off-balance shot in the lane. That made it 36-17, or 34-2 since the aforementioned Chiba run.

The Jets trailed 40-24 at the break. Woods, who had a 52-point game for the Oita HeatDevils during the 2009-10 season, had put 12 points on the board by the break, with four steals and three assists for good measure.

Chiba had 16 turnovers and shot 9-for-30 in the opening half.

“The strong start was nice to see,” Gardow said later. “I really thought we had them. . . . That was the worst run I’ve ever been a part of in basketball.”

Fueled by increased aggressive play on defense — challenging the shooters, especially, and getting a few timely blocked shots — the Jets pushed the tempo at the other end of the floor to get back into the game. A 15-6 run capped by Staten’s three-point play slashed the Akita advantage to 46-39.

But Akita regained its ferocity and fierce focus and entered the fourth quarter ahead 62-47. Staten and Hargrow, meanwhile, had combined for 31 of the Jets’ points through three quarters, 19 for Staten.

Drayton’s layup-and-one made it 73-56 with 5:57 remaining effectively sealed the win for the Northern Happinets.

Notes: The Jets hadn’t played a bj-league game since a Christmas Eve loss to the host Niigata Albirex BB. They became the first bj-league team to participate in the Emperor’s Cup (All-Japan Basketball Championship) and had games on Jan. 2 and 4, the second of which was a 97-59 loss to JBL squad Levanga Hokkaido at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.

The Happinets arrrived in Chiba Prefecture a day after the team announced guard/forward Curtis Terry, half-brother of NBA standout Jason Terry (Dallas Mavericks) had been released after his arrest for the theft of three cans of alcohol on Jan. 15 in Akita.

Nakamura said despite Terry’s incident the team kept the focus on the game and on the players that were suited up for the series.