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Phoenix, Golden Kings return to Final Four

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

As expected, the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix and Ryukyu Golden Kings, regular-season winners of the Eastern and Western Conference titles, respectively, will return to the bj-league’s Final Four again this coming weekend with a shot at meeting in the title game for the second consecutive year.

The two-time defending champion Phoenix eliminated the Niigata Albirex BB to move one step closer to their goal of a three-peat, a feat only accomplished by one other team in bj-league history, the Osaka Evessa from 2005-08. The Golden Kings, meanwhile, took care of business against the Shiga Lakestars.

On May 19, Hamamatsu will face the Yokohama B-Corsairs in the East final at 2:10 p.m. at Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum, followed by the West final — Ryukyu vs. the Kyoto Hannaryz — at 6:10 p.m. All games will be televised by BS-Fuji. The winners will meet in the title game a day later at 5:10 p.m., preceded by the third-place game.

Here’s a recap of Sunday’s playoff action:

Phoenix 97, Albirex BB 85 (Game 2)

Phoenix 30, Albirex BB 19 (mini-game tiebreaker)

In Hamamatsu, the hosts handled the pressure of a must-win game and defeated Niigata to force the mini-game tiebreaker.

In the regularly scheduled contest, Lawrence Blackledge, a Marquette University product, put his stamp on the game in a big way: 20 points on 9-for-11 shooting, seven rebounds, three blocks and two steals. Jermaine Dixon contributed 19 points and nine assists, Shoji Nakanishi scored 11 points and Wayne Arnold poured in 10 for rookie coach Ryuji Kawai’s team. Masahiro Oguchi and Shingo Okada both netted nine points.

Kimitake Sato buried 4 of 4 3-point shots en route to a team-high 16 points for Niigata (28-24 in the regular season), Nile Murry added 14 points, Chris Holm scored 13, Yuichi Ikeda 12 and Shuhei Komatsu had eight. The Albirex, like their coach Matt Garrison, a standout outside shooter during his playing days, launched 24 attempts from 3-point range and canned 12 of them. But it wasn’t enough to eliminate the playoff-tested Phoenix.

In the mini-game, 2010-11 regular-season and playoff MVP Jeffrey Parmer carried Hamamatsu, scoring 12 points, including 6-for-8 at the foul line. Arnold had six points and unheralded star Oguchi, no stranger to the spotlight, was 4-for-4 at the line as the Phoenix survived a valiant fight from the talented Albirex.

Murry had nine of Niigata’s 19 points in the tiebreaker.

“Final Four, here we come!” were the words Dixon used on Facebook to express his delight. “Way to get it done, Phoenix!”

In an interview with The Japan Times, Parmer had this to say: “We didn’t give away a big lead in the fourth quarter like we did yesterday (in Game 1). We kept the pedal to the metal, and never let up. In the mini-game, we just wanted it more than Niigata wanted it.

“We most definitely showed the heart of a champion.”

Arnold said, “I think experience played a role in our victory. But the biggest thing is, we just refused to lose no matter the circumstances. We left it all out on the court today. I think we have the best combination of heart, experience, and ability in the league. Not taking anything away from any other team, because the Final Four is loaded this season. But at the end of the day, with everything on the line, this group of guys will for sure show up for war — guns loaded and aim steady.”

Golden Kings 74, Lakestars 66

In Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, Ryukyu’s depth and defensive efficiency steered the hosts to a series-closing victory over Shiga.

Anthony McHenry finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds and two steals for the Kings and Jeff Newton, who earned a trip to his seventh consecutive Final Four, had 10 points and seven boards. Dillion Sneed, Naoto Kosuge and Narito Namizato all scored nine points apiece for Ryukyu. Namizato, still only 22, supplied six rebounds, six assists and three steals for the victors.

The Kings survived a 15-for-30 day at the charity stripe, but all those trips to the line stopped the clock and took away time for the Lakestars to run their offense.

Shiga’s Julius Ashby had 24 points and 12 rebounds before fouling out. Yu Okada added 12 points, Josh Peppers scored 10 and Ray Nixon hauled in nine rebounds.

Evessa 76, Hannaryz 68 (Game 2)

Hannaryz 15, Evessa 12 (mini-game tiebreaker)

In Osaka, the Evessa fell short of the Final Four for the first time in the franchise’s proud seven-year history.

After dropping the series opener on Saturday, coach Ryan Blackwell’s club bounced back with a typical hard-nosed defensive effort and a low-scoring contest, a pace that Blackwell favors.

Mike Bell paced Osaka with 23 points, big man Wayne Marshall had 17 points and seven boards and Masashi Obuchi provided 14 points and seven assists. Six-time All-Star Cohey Aoki scored 10 points.

Osaka put 46 points on the board in the second half, outscoring Kyoto by 14 points in that span.

Rick Rickert led the Hannaryz, a third-year franchise, with 17 points and 14 rebounds. His teammates also played at a high level, as evidenced by Kyoto’s 21 assists on 27 field goals.

Taizo Kawabe poured in 13 points, Lee Cummard finished with 11 points and seven assists and Jermaine Boyette had a seven-point outing.

When the teams returned to the court for the tiebreaker after a short break, Kyoto won the grind-it-out affair. Cummard scored five points, Boyette had three and Naoto Nakamura canned a big 3-pointer.

For Osaka, Bell and Obuchi each scored five and Bobby St. Preux scored two.

The Evessa’s narrow defeat ends a season that began with high hopes after the team added longtime Tokyo Apache star Aoki during the offseason to team up with frontcourt mainstays Marshall and Lynn Washington, a two-time MVP. The team’s motto — championship or bust — has been the same since 2005.

Washington’s March 13 arrest for alleged involvement in smuggling drugs into Japan (he was exonerated of all charges in April, but never played another game) created a situation the team never expected to deal with. But the Evessa’s poise and skills kept them in the hunt for another title before falling to a Hannaryz squad that has been among the league’s best and most consistent clubs the entire season.

“We had a great season but came up a little short,” Blackwell wrote on Facebook, “Losing in a 10-minute overtime game doesn’t negate all that Evessa has accomplished during this crazy season. Thank you to all of our fans, boosters, players, and staff. I need a vacation.”