Trians rage against dying light with Emperor’s Cup victory

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Panasonic Trians grabbed their first Emperor’s Cup in 16 years with a 64-61 victory over the Aisin Sea Horses in the men’s final of the All-Japan Championship on Monday, prevailing in the second half thanks to their stingy defense.

Georgetown University product Jameel Watkins clicked in the final quarter to be the main force both offensively and defensively in Panasonic’s splendid come-from-behind win over the Sea Horses, who had won the title in four of the previous five years.

The 211-cm center, who led the game with 21 points and six blocks, notched nine points and four blocks in the fourth period alone.

“I just tried to do my best for my teammates, the fans and the people who support us,” the 35-year-old Watkins said after the game at Yoyogi National Gymnasium. “So I just gave all my effort so we could make them happy.”

Forward/center Takanori Onishi was the Trians’ second leading scorer with 13 points, and veteran point guard Hiroyuki Kinoshita chipped in with nine points, three steals and eight rebounds.

What enabled Panasonic’s victory was, without a doubt, its defense. While the first half belonged to Aisin as it ended the half with a 40-26 lead, the Trians tightened up on the defensive side of the ball and gave up only 21 points to the Sea Horses in the latter half.

“Buckle down defensively to play harder rebound,” Panasonic’s veteran American Charles O’Bannon said when asked what the team was instructed to at halftime. “So if we get help, control the board and fight back one possession at a time, we have a chance. It certainly worked.”

Panasonic outrebounded Aisin 47-35, while holding Aisin’s shooting percentage to 38.7. It was 48.5 in the first half.

And as the game came down to the final seconds, it was a pair of blocked shots by the Trians that robbed the championship from the Sea Horses, who were favored before the final.

With the Trians up 63-61, Watkins denied a hook shot by Aisin center/forward J.R. Sakuragi underneath the basket with some 10 seconds left.

And moments later, with Panasonic up 64-61, Kosuke Kanamaru slapped away Shinsuke Kashiwagi’s 3, which would have tied the game as the buzzer rang.

“We were talking before that moment that we could afford to allow a 2-point shot and a foul, but never an easy 3,” Kanamaru said.

Kanamaru added that he was so pleased to have won the game in a way the team was supposed to play.

“We grabbed rebounds well,” said the national team shooter, who had six points. “Our style is to clean the board and score on fast breaks. We did that (in the second half), so I’m very happy.”

Aisin had four players with double-digit points. Sakuragi led with 15 and Takatoshi Furukawa followed with 14. Big man Kevin Young racked up 11 points and 10 rebounds.

The title probably meant more to Panasonic than any other club. Because of the company’s financial woes, the team is to be disbanded after this season.

“We’re very excited,” said O’Bannon, a long-time JBL veteran who was on the 1994-95 NCAA national championship team at UCLA. “Especially with Panasonic, we’re folding. This is our last year that we’ll all be together. I think it makes it extra special.”

The Trians’ 35-year-old captain, Makoto Nagayama, who’s played for Panasonic for all these years since he entered the JBL, talked of his affection for the club to which he has given enormous loyalty.

“I grew up watching a strong Matsushita (predecessor of Panasonic) as a kid,” said Nagayama, a Hyogo Prefecture native. “And I joined this team because I wanted to be part of it.

“When I heard the (folding) announcement, I was so shocked and even thought about quitting basketball. I really love this team and love my teammates. The time that we can play with these members is limited, so we really wanted to win the championship.”

It was the club’s 10th All-Japan title, but the previous nine were won under the name of Matsushita.

Aisin currently is in first place in the JBL regular season with a 20-4 record, while Panasonic is fourth at 13-11.

The all-tournament team was announced after the game: Panasonic’s Kinoshita, Kanamaru and Watkins, and Aisin’s Kashiwagi and Sakuragi.