YOKOHAMA – The Yokohama B-Corsairs burst onto the scene as a brand new franchise with an unusual — but hip — name and no identity when the 2011-12 bj-league season tipped off in October.
Fast forward to Thursday. The B-Corsairs have become a force to be reckoned with in the fledgling hoop circuit. They are, in fact, the league’s hottest team, winners of 10 straight games and 23 of their past 31 contests.
For most of the contest, Yokohama excelled in all key facets of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium, routing the Akita Northern Happinets 86-74 .
B-Corsairs bench boss Reggie Geary, the league’s Coach of the Year, kept his players poised, helping them to weather the storm during Akita’s expected fourth-quarter run.
“I’m always happy when we get a W, especially in the playofs,”Geary said after the game. “You’ve always got to play 40 minutes, and I thought we did a fairly good job at it tonight.”
He added: “As our captain (Masayuki Kabaya) said, ‘We’re only halfway done.’ We need another one.”
Yokohama plays host to Akita, a second-year franchise, in Game 2 of the series on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the same venue. The winner advances to the Final Four, to be held at Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum next weekend. If necessary, a mini-game tiebreaker (10 minutes) will be played after Game 2 — that is, if Akita wins Friday’s scheduled contest.
Geary, a forner NBA point guard, expects composure to be a big key in the rematch, stressing that Akita coach Kazuo Nakamura is a well-known Japanese coach with a history of success.
“In 24 hours, I don’t expect them to reinvent the wheel,” Geary said, responding to a question about if his team should expect any major changes in how Akita defends standout guard Draelon Burns (19 points, six rebounds, six assists, a dominant presence in the drive-and-dish aspects of the offense) on Friday.
“We respect our opponent and we’ll come out 100 percent,” the coach added.
Geary said the series will boil down to this: “It’s just a matter of who wants it more,” he predicted, “and who can execute at a higher level.”
The B-Corsairs feature a bigger frontcourt than the Happinets, and the potent combo of 215-cm center Chas McFarland and 208-cm power forward Justin Burrell, the league’s reglar-season MVP, helped them control the paint and deny Akita’s shooters and rebounders time and again.
Yokohama finished with 57 rebonds to Akita’s 37. Burrell hauled in a game-best 18 boards and McFarland had 13.
McFarland added 18 points, matching teammate Kenji Yamada’s total.
Burrell finished with 11 points. The B-Corsairs made 10 of 17 3s.
Akita trailed 66-42 entering the fourth quarter. Rallying with hustle and utlizing their quickness to trap and harass the B-Corsairs on offense, Akita trimmed the lead to 76-59 on Lionel Green’s 3-pointer with 5:03 remaining. E.J. Drayton sank the first of two free throws as Yokohama’s advantage dropped to 76-62 with 4 minutes to play.
All told, a 20-9 Happinets run obliterated Yokohama’s comfort level, what with Kyle Swanston’s three free throws making it 77-65 with 3:32 left.
“We were too passive in the second half,” Yamada said. “We need to focus for the entire (40) minutes tomorrow.”
In a hard, physical fouth quarter, Yamada stepped to the line with 2:14 left and made the second shot. Moments later, Burrell converted a layup, courtesy of an inside feed from Burns, to put Yokohama back in control of momentum with a 15-point lead.
McFarland’s consecutive slam dunks in the final minute, excited the crowd, which chanted his name — “Chas, Chas, Chas!” — and sealed the victory for Yokohama.
Akita outscored Yokohama 32-20 in the fourth quarter.
The Happinets were 10-for-39 on 3-points and 15-for-38 from inside the arc.
“We need to shot better tomorrow,” Akita forward Kazuhiro Shoji said later.
“It’s not easy to beat Yokohama. They’re a good team.”
For 3½ quarters we played well,” Burns admitted. “(But) every teams makes a run.”
Looking ahead to the rematch, Akita forward Ricky Woods, who had 16 points, said the Happinets must focusing on getting more stops and defense and hitting more shots in Game 2. He said Akita “wasn’t aggressive enough” for much of the series opener.
Swanston scored a team-high 17 points, including 14 in the fourth, for the Happinets. Lionel Green added 13 and Shigehiro Taguchi had 10. The visitors only turned the ball over five times and collected 11 steals.
“We simply fell short. We were weak in all aspects,” Nakamura told reporters. “You all saw that, didn’t you?”
“We lost our unity during the game and that’s what I’m regretting about. You have to be unified in this game, that’s how you win.”
Entering the contest, the B-Corsairs (31-21 in the regular season, second place in the 10-team East), had won nine consecutive games and earned a bye into the conference semis. The Happinets had held off the Sendai 89ers in a spirited first-round series last weekend in Akita.
Nakamura, who guided the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix to back-to-back championships in 2009-10 and 2010-11, runs a helter-skelter offense that requires his players to shoot 3s early and often, and in many cases 3s are taken many more times than shots from inside the arc. If the shots are falling, the Happinets, like the title-winning Phoenix before them, are very tough to beat. If Akita is missing its 3s, the team’s offense have a rough time finding its rhythm.
Case in point: Akita was 5-for-24 on 3s in the first 30 minutes.
Less than a minute into the third quarter, Akita faced a 46-30 deficit after Burns flushed a 3-pointer. McFarland’s putback made it 48-30, and then it was a 20-point margin following Burrell’s spot-up J.
Burns broke down the Akita defense, weaving through traffic for an easy deuce and a 52-30 lead as Yokohama’s momentum pushed their game-changing run to 20-3 going back to the second quarter, when it led 32-27.
In the first quarter, Shoji’s 3-pointer and two free throws seconds later put Akita ahead 10-5.
The B-Corsairs pulled within 10-9 on Burrell’s pull-up jumper, but Yuki Kikuchi canned a 3 on the visitors’ next possession to push the margin to four — but not for long.
Captain Kabaya’s left-wing 3-pointer brought the hosts within 13-12 before a timeout with 4:39 left in the first quarter. Following the timeout, Satoshi Hisayama’s corner 3 put the hosts in front 15-13.
They traded baskets and the lead in the next few moments, with Woods’ spot-up J putting Akita ahead 17-16. But Hisayama buried his second 3 as Yokohama went back in front, and his baseline runner prompted the Happinets to call a timeout with 1:38 to play in the quarter.
In the first period’s closing seconds, Burns drove the lane and missed a layup and followed up his own shot with a putback to give the B-Corsairs a 26-20 advantage entering the second stanza.
Yokohama led by eight twice early in the second, but Akita chipped away at the lead, trimming it to 31-27 on a Woods jumper before an official timeout at the 4:34 mark.
Yamada extended the Yokohama lead to 38-30 on a textbook driving jumper with about 80 seconds left in the half. Then Akita was called for a 24-second violation, and Burns’ timely 3-pointer gave the hosts a double-digit lead for the first time, 41-30.
Later, looking back on both halves, Kabaya summed up the win this way:
“To make it simple, it was defense and rebounding.”
The B-Corsairs, who led for the entire second quarter, closed out the half on a 10-3 run. Hisayama scored 11-first-half points to lead all players. With Kabaya on the bench with three fouls in the second quarter, Hisayama’s solid play in the first half was a key in the win, Geary said.
Said Hisayama, “I was excited to be playing in the playoffs, for sure, but at the same time, I played like any other game. I was prepared and since I’m a shooter I played the game like every other game.”
The telling stats of the opening half were as follows: Yokohama shot 7-for-9 from 3-point range, including Hisayama’s 3-for-3 and Durns’ 2-for-3; the B-Corsairs outrebonded the Happinets 29-18, getting 12 boards from Burrell; and Akita shot 5-for-19 on 3s before intermission.
In the paint: B-Corsairs veteran forward Taketo Aoki appeared in 50 games for the Ryukyu Golden Kings’ 2008-09 championship squad.
Happinets guard Makoto Hasegawa starred for the Niigata Albirex BB on the team’s 2005-06 championship runnerup squad. . . . Serious business:
Nakamura took off his suit jacket in the game’s first two minutes, stood up and directed his charges from the sideline. . . . The game was played on a wooden court; both teams, of course, played the majority of their games on the league’s standard synthetic courts this season.
. . . The B-Corsairs were 4-0 against the Happinets in the regular season, winning those four tight contests by a combined 15 points. . . .
Like NBA stars Tim Duncan (Spurs) and Chris Paul (Clippers), McFarland played college ball for the ACC’s Wake Forest Demon Deacons.