Superior teamwork and execution carried the Ryukyu Golden Kings to the Western Conference title and the best regular-season record (39-13) among the bj-league’s 19 teams.
No easy feat.
And now, after a 79-74 triumph over the Kyoto Hannaryz in the bj-league’s Western Conference final on Saturday at Ariake Colosseum, they face their toughest challenge of the season: a rematch of last season’s championship game against the two-time defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix on Sunday. Same location and a 5:10 p.m. tipoff.
It was the first-ever appearance in the Final Four for Kyoto, whose bench boss, Honoo Hamaguchi, had piloted the Sendai 89ers for the team’s first six seasons.
“It’s a shame we lost,” said Hamaguchi, whose team will meet the Yokohama B-Corsairs in Sunday’s third-place game at 1:10 p.m. “The players gave their best effort.”
Veteran forward David Palmer, who was a key player on the Osaka Evessa’s first two championship squads, delivered a vintage shooting clinic when the Golden Kings needed a spark. His back-to-back scoring buckets — a jumper, a runner — took the wind out of Kyoto’s sails after it had cut the lead to 62-60 midway through the fourth quarter on former NBA center Lance Allred’s three-point play. Then Narito Namizato slipped past Kyoto’s defense for a layup and Palmer, a pure shooter with a quick release, fired in another shot to close out the pivotal 8-0 run that gave Ryukyu a 70-60 lead it would not relinquish.
“They hit shots at the right time in the fourth quarter,” Kyoto center Lance Allred said of Ryukyu.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be a pretty game. It was a physical game. . . . Hats off to David Palmer, he hit some big shots.”
Palmer was 5-for-9 from the field and 6-for-7 at the foul line.
Said Palmer: “Obviously, we’re happy to win . . . and the focus is on tomorrow’s game and Hamamatsu.”
To beat Kyoto, Palmer said it took a determined effort and strong performances by a number of Golden Kings. “We needed to defend and rebound and play hard for the whole 40 minutes.”
Kyoto had won three of four in the regular season against its West rival. The Golden Kings are in familiar territory, having already reached the Final Four for the fourth straight season.
On this night, the Golden Kings’ depth and overall production held off the Hannaryz’s repeated comeback attempts, including the latest big threat when a Taizo Kawabe 3-pointer trimmed the defit to 76-72 in the final minute, but the comeback fell short.
In a hard-nosed game featuring 100 rebounds, 63 free throws and 48 personal fouls, it all came down to a few key possessions.
Jermaine Boyette scored a game-high 24 points for Kyoto and Kawabe had 12. Lee Cumard scored eight points and Kyosuke Setoyama, big men Rick Rickert and Allred each had seven points. Allred led the Hannaryz with eight reobounds.
Earlier in the game, “we just weren’t clicking on the other end of the floor,” Boyette said, speaking about his team’s offensive struggles.
Five Golden Kings reached double figures: Palmer (17 points), McHenry (16), Namizato (11) and rookie Morihisa Yamauchi and Jeff Newton (10 apiece).
Golden Kings coach Dai Oketani singled out Yamauchi during his postgame chat with reporters, calling his play “a wonderful (effort) for a rookie” in 14-action-packed minutes.
Newton’s rock-steady presence helped his club maintain its composure throughout the game. The four-time title-winner grabbed 11 rebounds with two steals and two blocks.
Oketani said the game plan took a week to prepare, but the players followed it and gave a strong performance.
The players confirmed Oketani’s opinion about the big week’s preparations in the early going. Following a Namizato layup and a pair of Newton free throws, Ryukyu led 10-2 at the 4:54 mark of the first quarter.
Kyoto, a third-year franchise, stormed back with an 11-3 run capped by a Boyette 3-pointer, courtesy of a kick-out pass from Allred, to pull within 13-12.
The Golden Kings ended the quarter on an 8-0 spurt. Palmer and Dzaflo Larkai each hit two free throws, and Tsubasa Yonamine hooked up with high-flying McHenry for a crowd-pleasing alley-oop. Yamauchi canned a buzzer-beating jumper for good measure, chest-bumping his teammates to celebrate as he walked back to the sideline. Kyoto trailed 21-12 entering the second quarter.
On the final sequence of the first half, Palmer, the league’s 3-point shooting king (50 percent this season), sank a baseline 3 to stretch the Okinawa-based club’s lead to 36-26.
“I was really glad to make that shot,” a smiling Palmer told reporters after the game.
Yamauchi, who celebrated his 22nd birthday on March 23, led all Kings with eight first-half points and four teammates scored five apiece. Fellow guard Namizato is also 22, giving Ryukyu two promising young standouts in the rotation this season.
Boyette paced the Hannaryz, who were 9-for-32 from the field, with 11 points in the opening half.
Kyoto got as close as 38-34 in the third before Ryukyu rattled off 10 straight points and got a big block from McHenry to regain control of the contest. McHenry, in his fourth season in a Ryukyu uniform, was the only player on both teams to play the entire third period, and he made his presence felt with eight points, five rebounds and a block in that time.
Rickert’s free throw cut the lead to 51-47 late in the third before Larkai pushed it back to seven, 53-46, to account for the final points of the quarter.
The Golden Kings led 62-57 at the midway point of the fourth before withstanding a late surge from the Hannaryz.
“It’s hard to beat a team four times,” Boyette admitted, saying the team’s slow start was a factor but not the only reason the Hannaryz lost.
That said, the Kyoto squad, big, versatile and talented, was built to be in the championship mix this seaon.
“We expected to be here,” Boyette said. “We expected to make it to the Final Four.”