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Burrell powers B-Corsairs into Final Four

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

With a trip to the Final Four on the line, the Yokohama B-Corsairs and Akita Northern Happinets knew nothing would be easy in Friday’s high-stakes contest. And both teams displayed a sense of urgency from start to finish in Game 2 of the bj-league’s Eastern Conference semifinal series at Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium.

But the Happinets, pushed to the brink of exhaustion, by inimitable bench boss Kazuo Nakamura, played a better, smarter game than they did in the series opener.

The result? Akita defeated Yokohama 82-69.

It was the second-year Happinets’ first victory over the expansion B-Corsairs in six meetings this season, and it snapped Yokohama’s 10-game winning streak.

That forced a 10-minute mini-game tiebreaker, the league’s quirky winner-take-all format for the first-round and conference semifinal rounds, 20 minutes after Game 2 concluded.

In the mini-game, Yokohama topped Akita 18-15 behind 12 points from regular-season MVP Justin Burrell.

Yokohama’s Reggie Geary, the bj-league coach the year, said, “We knew this was going to be a battle. We take our hats off to coach (Kazuo) Nakamura and the Akita team. That’s an outstanding team over thre.”

“Thank you for coming out,” Geary told fans.

“Please come out to Ariake Colosseum (next weekend),” he added. “We’re going to need you next week.”

In the first 5-minute stanza of bonus play, Burrell, a first-year pro out of St. John’s in New York City who, scored Yokohama’s first seven points, staking the club to a 7-3 lead. But then Kazuhiro Shoji buried a 3 to pull Akita within 7-5. The Happinets missed several shots in a row after that before a break in the action with 16.7 ticks left on the clock.

The B-Corsairs never trailed in the first 7:56 of the 10-minute tiebreaker, — and that form held up, but it was dramatic until the finish. For instance, they took an 11-7 lead into a timeout before Chas McFarland stepped to the free-throw line with 3:04 remaining. He made the first of two shots to raise the lead to five points. Akita guard Mychal Kearse’s pIull-up J cut it to 12-9, and then Burrell made a layup and went to the charity stripe with 2:19 left for a shot at an old-school three-point play. The shot was good, and it was 15-9 before the Happinets’ Lionel Green made a 3-pointer. Shoji missed a 3 on the next Akita possession and McFarland was whistled for an offensive foul.

Akita then attempted three shots in rapid succession before losing possession with 19.7 seconds remaining.

After Kenji Yamada the first of two free throws, Akita’s Kyle Swanston grabbed the defensive rebound after the second shot, raced down court and canned a 3 to pull the visitors within 16-15 with just under 12 seconds left in the second mini-game period.

Draelon Burns sank two free throws with 8.6 seconds left to make it 18-15.

Green missed a potential game-tying 3 at the buzzer. McFarland grabbed the 3 and tossed the ball in the air, a symbolic exclamation point to end the hard-earned victory.

Said Burrell: “Yesterday I thanked a lot of people behind the scenes . . . these guys (trainer Daisuke Goto) and (manager Aya Miyauchi) without them nothing would function properly,” including getting guys treatment for injuries.

Burrell praised the fans for their never-wavering support, saying, “You guys pushed us. and without your support we couldn’t do it.

Basketball is a game played with your heart and soul and you pushed us through.”

Yokohama advances to face the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix-Niigata Albirex BB series winner next Saturday at Ariake Colossuem in the Final Four.

Simply put, better offensive execution carried Akita to victory in Game 2, as evidenced by its 17-for-30 effort from inside the arc. The hosts, on the other hand, were just a little flat, a little too tentative in shooting, defending and overall play.

Yokohama defeated Akita 86-74 in Thursday’s Game 1, and held the visitors to 10-for-39 3-point shooting. Akita was 10-for-23 on 3s in the first three quarters on Friday.

Burrell led all players with 21 points in Game 2 and also hauled in 17 rebounds. Yokohama captain Masayuki Kabaya had 13 points and Burns scored 12.

The Happinets, playing loose and with ample confidence, were led by 22-year-old Shigehiro Taguchi’s 20-point outburst, four 3s and 8-for-14 shooting from the field. Akita star Ricky Woods had 18 points and nine rebounds.

Burrell’s second 3-pointer of the game made it 39-39 early in the third. Kabaya buried a 3 on the hosts’ next trip down the floor, then Swanston followed suit for Akita to tie it at 42-42.

Near the midway point of the third, Taguchi sank a baseline 3 to give the Happinets a 49-44 lead. He replicated that feat from the opposite corner seconds later as the Tohoku-based club increased its advantage to eight as part of a 14-5 spurt.

The hot-shooting Northern Happinets quickly flushed two more 3s — Kearse and Taguchi in succession — and took a 58-46 advantage.

Burrell, who attempted just 15 3s in the regular season, sank his fourth of the game to bring the hosts within 60-54 late in the third quarter with the enthusiastic crowd clapping and chanting loudly.

Woods’ driving layup beat the buzzer, and Akita took a 64-54 advantage into the fourth quarter.

The Happinets took their then-biggest lead of the game, 67-54, on a Ryosuke Mizumachi 3 in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter. Then Taguchi, the best pure shooter on the floor for most of the game, canned a mid-range J as the hosts fell behind 69-54 before a timeout at the 7:56 mark.

The B-Corsairs fought back to within 71-61 before Swanston’s back-door cut and throwdown made it 73-61. Yokohama, scrapping and clawing, cut it to nine on two occasions in the next few minutes. Then, after a Burrell block, Burns missed a 3 at the other end.

Woods’ clutch layup with 58.1 seconds remaining, which gave Akita a 78-67 lead, appeared to seal the win for the Happinets.

How intense was the game from the get-go? Nakamura, the league’s oldest coach at 71, took off his pink suit jacket less than 90 seconds into the game and began barking instructions to his players.

In the first quarter, Akita, looking to replicate its 18-0 start in Game 2 of the first-round series against the Sendai 89ers, took a 5-2 lead before Yokohama got its offensive rolling. The B-Corsairs pulled within 8-7 on Burrell’s baseline drive-and-spin layup and grabbed the lead on a Kabaya jumper. Then Kearse nailed a jumper as Akita regained the advantage near the midway point at 10-9.

Woods’ first bucket of the game extended the Happinets’ lead to 16-9.

Woods, who had held the league’s single-game scoring record of 52 points while playing for the Oita HeatDevils in 2009-10 (Michael Parker, then with the Rizing Fukuoka, set the new standard with 53 points last season against the Takamatsu Five Arrows), had his left knee heavily taped, which slowed down his typical explosive mobility.

A Satoshi Hisayama 3 and a Kenji Yamada teardrop J in traffic cut it to 18-14. And then, as part of a quarter-closing 7-2 spurt, a Burns floater brought the B-Corsairs within 18-16.

Burrell canned a straight-away 3-pointer for the first scoring play of the second stanza, pulling the hosts ahead 19-18. Sharp around-the-perimeter passing created open space for Taketo Aoki to bury a 3. And it flew effortlessly through the rim.

Taguchi’s back-to-back 3s put Akita in front 26-22. The B-Corsairs called a timeout with 5:12 remaining until halftime after Yuki Kikuchi knocked down a 3. That came after a series of breakdowns on Yokohama’s offensive end.

The short breather was good for the B-Corsairs, who faced tenacious traps and matchup zone tactics by the hustling Happinets. Seconds later, Aoki, who roams the baseline as frequently as birds soar in the sky, released a picture-perfect midrange jumper, and the lead was down to 29-26.

Burns knotted the score at 29-29, slicing past a pair of defenders with a layup.

With 7.1 left on the second-quarter game clock, Woods’ up-and-under bucket tied it at 35-35, and he sank the subsequent free throw to put Akita ahead by one before the teams took a 20-minute break.

Woods was the leading scorer in the first half (11 points), shooting 3-for-3 from the field and 5-for-5 at the charity stripe. Burrell led the hosts with eight points in that span, and Burns and Aoki each had seven. The B-Corsairs were 13-for-33 from the field and 6-for-12 at the line; the Happinets were 12-for-30 and 8-for-9, respectively.