It was a revealing contrast. It seemed that the more Sea Horses players ran out of gas, the more energetic the Alvark players would become.
Toyota Motors came through at both ends of the floor in the second half as it captured its first league title since the 2006-07 campaign with an 83-64 victory over the Aisin Sea Horses in Game 4 of the JBL Finals on Sunday.
The Alvark dropped Game 1 of the best-of-five series after blowing a 19-point lead, but rallied back to win the next three games to wrap it up.
“I’m simply excited,” Toyota forward/center Kosuke Takeuchi said after the game. “While this series was played between the two great teams and you wouldn’t know which side would prevail, we came out with this result and I’m extremely happy.”
A full-house crowd of 2,579 at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 saw a see-saw game in the first half. But the Alvark dominated the action and widened their lead, spearheaded by center Philip Ricci and guard Takeki Shonaka in the second half.
Ricci led all players with 20 points and seven rebounds, while captain Shonaka scored 10 points.
The Alvark took a 35-32 lead at the end of the opening half, thanks to an astonishing buzzer-beater by Taishi Ito. After that, the game belonged to Toyota.
What brought the Toyota fans into a festive mood was another period-ending shot by Takayuki Kumagai, who hit a basket thrown single-handedly as the buzzer rang at the end of the third quarter. Toyota was up 58-49 at that point.
In the final quarter, Aisin players looked exhausted and couldn’t keep up with the vigorous Alvark, who seemed to be able to move the ball better than in the first three periods. Toyota outscored Aisin 25-15 in the fourth.
Toyota forward Ken Tanaka said that his team stuck to its game plan, which gave the Tokyo-based club an edge in terms of stamina late in the game.
“We wore them down with our bench and with our players,” Tanaka said. “(I’m) just very excited. We are the champions.”
Toyota shot 53.1 percent from the field, going 59.6 percent from inside the arc, while Aisin was limited to a field-goal percentage of 33.9 percent. The Alvark, who had triumphed in January’s All-Japan Championships by defeating Aisin in the final, also outrebounded its rival 38-26.
Aisin head coach Kimikazu Suzuki said his team played well until midway through the third quarter, but couldn’t match Toyota’s energy.
“With other teams, usually they have ups and downs in a game,” Suzuki said. “But Toyota can play without the down parts for the entire 40 minutes. So they’re a really strong team to beat, that’s my impression.”
For Aisin, captain and point guard Shinsuke Kashiwagi led the team with 19 points, followed by Shogo Asayama, who hit four 3s en route to 15 points.
Shonaka said that Aisin was up against the wall and entered the game playing so hard, but the Alvark managed to evade the surge by the powerhouse club.
“Obviously (Aisin) came out and played so whole-heartedly,” Shonaka said. “But we were determined to play our ball that we’ve playing the whole year and stayed focused throughout the game. That resulted with this championship in our hands.”
Alvark starting guard Yusuke Okada said that Toyota and Aisin have played so many games this year and knew what their respective opponent does. Therefore, he stated, there was no need to do anything fancy in series, but focus on playing the team’s way.
“It was the 11th time for both teams to face each other this year with today’s game,” said Okada, who finished with five points. “But we didn’t have to hide anything. We only had to play our Toyota brand of ball for 40 minutes, and it ended up with this result.”
Ricci, who was chosen the playoff MVP after the game, was on the same page with Shonaka and Okada. The 31-year-old center said that the Alvark grabbed the title as a team, not with a few individuals.
“We have more than one guy, (more than) one solid player in each spot,” he said. “They tried to keep up with us and we overcame their pressure.”
Former Columbia University player Keijuro “K.J.” Matsui recalled that his team’s loss in Game 1 worked as a bitter pill that “tightened their mind-set after all.”
Beck, a well-traveled coach who has worked for various U.S. colleges and German League clubs before joining Toyota, said that among the teams he’s been at, this Alvark team is one of the top squads.
“This is my second season in Japan and the Toyota Alvark team from last year and this year is a special team,” said Beck, who was named the JBL Coach of the Year. “I never worked with 14 players, even the guys of last year that left us and new guys we brought in this year.
“(The team) has sacrificed and worked for each other and has a true definition of what a team can do, what a team can overcome and how a team can succeed. This year, we won the cup (in the All-Japan Championships), we won the championship. That does not happen very often. And it’s a real testament to players that played for the Toyota Alvark this season. It’s a great, great team. It was my pleasure to coach them.”
After the series, the All-JBL Team was announced: Gibbs, Toyota’s Shonaka and Okada and Aisin’s Kashiwagi and J.R. Sakuragi.