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Singleton’s dunk at buzzer gives Sendai dramatic victory

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Playoff basketball is supposed to be exciting. And with a festive atmosphere on Golden Week, the bj-league’s first scheduled postseason contest of the 2011-12 season lived up to the hype on Saturday.

Case in point: Sendai 89ers big man Rashaad Singleton went from goat to hero in a matter of seconds.

Singleton was 1-for-7 at the free-throw line, but before the final buzzer sounded he made a game-ending dunk —call it a sayonara slam — as the visitors grabbed a stunning 79-77 triumph in Game 1 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series at Akita Municipal Gymnasium.

Sendai forward Johnny Dukes appeared ready to take a long jumper in the closing second but fired a perfect pass with bullet-like speed to the 213-cm Singleton in the low post.

“Well, we knew we had to get a quick shot off because we had no more timeouts,” Singleton told The Japan Times. “Dan (Fitzgerald) had just hit a huge 3 and I knew they were going to be hugging him tight, so I knew I had to be ready.

“Dukes is the guy we depend on to have the ball in clutch situations and he was able to maneuver his way through the defense and then he made eye contact with me. As soon as we looked at each other, I knew he was going to pass it to me and the only thing I was thinking was, ‘Get the shot off in time!’

“Dukes, being the amazing playmaker he is, found me right under the rim. Thank God, I dunked it with 0.7 seconds on the clock. God is good. This win was for the people of Sendai, the people who deserve it the most.”

Game 2 will be played Sunday afternoon at 2 in Akita, and, if necessary, a mini-tiebreaker (if the Happinets win the second game) to decide which team advances to the conference semifinals.

Happinets bench boss Kazuo Nakamura stormed off the court after the game, leaving his suit jacket on his seat.

Akita star Ricky Woods, who scored a game-high 27 points, tied it at 77-77 on an inside bucket with 6 seconds left. That set the stage for Sendai’s late drama.

“Well, when Ricky scored, the first thing I did was look at the clock and there were 6 seconds left, Dukes said, recounting the action. “I knew we didn’t have any timeouts so I got the ball and pushed it up the floor.

“When I crossed halfcourt, two defenders came to me and I was going to shoot it, but at the last second I saw Rashaad waving his hands, so I made the pass and he made a great finish to win the game.

“As soon as he dunked it, the first thing I did was look at the clock to see if it was good and there was about 0.6 seconds left so I jumped for joy.”

In a compelling story line that has played out through five meetings this seasons, ex-Akita coach Bob Pierce, the current Sendai 89ers sideline supervisor, has matched wits against Nakamura, the man who replaced him in Akita.

Nakamura steered the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix to a pair of titles in 2009-10 and 2010-11 before resigning.

After the pulse-rising win, Pierce said, “That would have hurt if we had let it get away. . . . Rashaad (was) huge on that last-second dunk, but also great poise from Take (Takehiko Shimura) to get the ball downcourt so quickly. Our guys were focused and aggressive today, but we have to continue that as long as we’re in the playoffs.”

Sendai improved to 2-3 against Akita this season.

The teams traded baskets in a fast-paced, entertaining fourth quarter.

Shimura’s 3-pointer tied it at 59-59 with 8:02 to play. Then Shigehiro Taguchi, a 22-year-old shooting guard who made his Akita debut on Feb. 4, knocked down a corner jumper to put the hosts ahead by two.

Kyle Swanston flushed a 3 to give Akita a 72-66 lead with 4 minutes left, and Sendai promptly called a timeout.

Driving down the lane, Dukes’ layup after the timeout cut it to 72-68. Fitzgerald canned a 3 in front of the 89ers bench, trimming the lead to 72-71.

The back-and-forth action continued until the final buzzer sounded.

Dukes paced the 89ers with 21 points and handed out four assists. Takuya Komoda, a rising star at small forward, had 18 points and four 3s, Fitzgerald poured in 13 and Shimura had 10 points with six assists. Croatian big man Filip Toncinic contributed eight points and four boards, and Singleton had seven points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.

For Akita, Taguchi scored 10, E.J. Drayton had nine, Swanston scored eight and Yuki Kikuchi finished with seven.

Sendai took a 43-37 advantage into the locker room at halftime.

Komoda led Sendai with 11 points before the break, Dukes had 10 and Shimura added seven points and four assists.

Hannaryz 82, Susanoo Magic 71

In Kyoto, the third-seeded Hannaryz defeated visiting Shimane in Game 1 of their Western Conference first-round series.

Rick Rickert posted a double-double (20 points, 11 rebounds) and Jermaine Boyette netted 17 points for Kyoto, guided by ex-Sendai coach Honoo Hamaguchi. Lee Cummard chipped in with 14 points for the Hannaryz and Naoto Nakamura scored seven.

For the sixth-seeded Magic, guard Edward Yamamoto, named the league’s Most Improved Player earlier this week, had 20 points with five assists.

Michael Parker, the league’s leading scorer for four consecutive seasons, scored 17 points on 7-for-18 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds

Koki Yabuuchi and Jumpei Nakama scored seven points apiece. Big man Jeral Davis grabbed eight rebounds and blocked five shots before fouling out.

Albirex BB 94, Grouses 73

In Niigata, five players scored in double figures as first-year coach Matt Garrison’s club opened the playoffs with a blowout win over Toyama.

Veteran guard Nile Murry paced Niigata, the East’s No. 4 seed, with 19 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, Shuhei Komatsu scored 16 points and drained 4 of 5 3-point shots in nearly 19 minutes of court time, Yuichi Ikeda netted 15, Kimitake Sato poured in 13 and Erron Maxey 10.

Albirex center Chris Holm, the league’s leading rebounder this season, grabbed 13 boards and scored nine points.

“Good game, back and forth,” Garrison said after the game. “My Japanese players did well.

“We fought hard the whole game. Gotta get one (win) tomorrow.”

Masashi Joho led the fifth-seeded Grouses with 21 points, and attempted 11 free throws, more than any other player on either team.

Toyama center Devin Searcy had 11 points and 12 rebounds and Larry Turner, Brian Harper and Takeshi Mito scored 10 points apiece.

Niigata collective 12 steals in the win, including three each from Maxey and backup forward Bennet Davis, who also had hauled in nine rebounds.

Lousy free-throw shooting (19-for-30) was not a factor in this game for the Albirex, who were 9-for-21 on 3s.

Toyama shot 20 percent (3-for-15) beyond the arc.

Lakestars 96, Rizing 86

In Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, Julius Ashby finished with 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting and raked in 14 rebounds to lead the hosts to a victory over Western Conference rival Fukuoka.

Josh Peppers scored 18 points and sank four 3s, Dionisio Gomez netted 15, Ray Nixon, a title winner with the Phoenix last season, had a 13-point outing and Takamichi Fujiwara contributed 11 points and six assists. Yu Okada added eight points for the fourth-seededLakestars.

Kevin Palmer paced the fifth-seeded Rizing with 27 points, 12 rebounds and seven steals. Jermaine Dearman scored 17 points and Carlos Dixon had 13. Gary Hamilton notched a double-double (10 points, 14 boards) for Fukuoka. Guard Akitomo Takeno, a scoring catalyst who has been slowed down by a recent ankle injury, was 1-for-8 from the field and was held to two points in Game 1.

The Rizing were 5-for-21 on 3-point shots, and 9-for-16 at the foul line.

“I think we played OK on defense throughout the game, but they made a run in the third quarter,” Palmer said in an interview with The Japan Times after the game, “and we dug ourselves a hole. And it was hard to get back into the game.

“We showed flashes of aggressive defense throughout the game and in order for us to win tomorrow we have to show that defense for 50 minutes,” he added, referring to a must-win Game 2 and a potential winner-take-all mini-tiebreaker.