CHIBA – In professional team sports, these are among the chief characteristics of championship teams: confidence, swagger and a diversified cast of proven playmakers.
Season after season, the Ryukyu Golden Kings, Okinawa’s ultra-successful basketball team, have delivered master class after master class in the aforementioned traits. And they’ve also maintained their level of excellence while other bj-league teams have risen and fallen.
Reigning champion Ryukyu showcased its youthful exuberance and penchant for late-game drama in the closing moments of Saturday’s series opener against the Chiba Jets, getting a pair of clutch buckets from 22-year-old Morihisa Yamauchi to close out a pulse-rising 84-82 victory.
Yamauchi sank a go-ahead 3-pointer with about 1 minute remaining to put the Golden Kings ahead 82-79.
Chiba guard Kensuke Tanaka drilled a 3 on the hosts’ next trip down the floor to tie the game at 82-82.
Seconds later, Ryukyu worked the ball around before it found its way back to Yamauchi, who turns 23 next Saturday. The second-year pro took a beautiful high-arcing runner that seemed to be suspended in the air for a minute before dropping through the net with about 21 seconds remaining. (The jaws of Jets faithful also dropped in disbelief by what they witnessed.)
But there was still time for Chiba to force overtime or score a go-ahead basket before the fourth quarter ended.
Defensive linchpin Anthony McHenry, in his fifth season on the Golden Kings, swatted Tanaka’s layup attempt on the ensuing possession, sending the ball out of bounds.
Chiba had another chance and inbounded the ball with 4 seconds to play.
Tightly defended, Marquin Chandler’s 3-pointer at the buzzer was off the mark. The Jets (20-19) lost for the sixth time in their last eight games, including five defeats in single digits.
“There wasn’t enough time to really create anything. I did get hit a couple times,” he said, though no foul was called.
Chandler had an explanation for his team’s recent struggles, saying, “We gave a good effort, but we just keep losing the same way, losing in the last minute . . . pretty much on the last play.”
Does Chiba need to change its play-calling tactics in crunch time?
“We don’t have any end-of-the-game plays,” said Chandler, who finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
Is that an immediate thing to consider for Jets coach Shinji Tomiyama’s club?
“I would love to see that,” Chandler told The Japan Times.
Chandler and frontcourt mate Joe Werner (22 points, 14 rebounds) combined for exactly half (41) of the team’s points and 26 rebounds, spearheading the Jets’ dominance on the boards in the series opener. Chiba finished with 52 rebounds to Ryukyu’s 36.
But the Jets turned the ball over 18 times, often resulting in fast breaks or easy baskets at the other end for the free-flowing Golden Kings, who made just seven turnovers.
Forward Terrance Woodbury scored a team-best 22 points for Ryukyu (30-9 overall, 13-6 road) and McHenry had 21 points, seven rebounds and a game-high five steals. Ryuichi Kishimoto, Dzaflo Larkai and Yamauchi all scored seven points apiece, with Yamauchi doing the deed all in the fourth quarter. Big man Jeff Newton, like McHenry an integral part of the team since the 2008-09 season when the Golden Kings captured their first title, contributed six points, nine rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block. Narito Namizato added five points and five assists and Naoto Kosuge also scored five points and collected a steal and a block.
The Jets were more efficient in the opening quarter, jumping out to an 11-2 lead after Chandler drained a 3-pointer and Reina Itakura scored on a putback to cap the spurt. But the visitors went on their own run, a 12-4 spurt to pull within 15-14 on a Larkai three-point play.
Chiba closed out the opening period on a 9-0 bulge, including a Marquise Gray quarter-closing jam, to make it 24-14.
Tomiyama acknowledged that his team was aggressive from the outset, but that wasn’t enough to win it.
“We played a good game,” he said later, “but Okinawa is an excellent team.”
The Jets stretched their advantage to 27-14 early in the second quarter on a Chandler 3-pointer, giving the host 12 straight points after two quarters. He was 3-for-6 on the afternoon from beyond the arc.
Then, like a car shifting into a higher gear, Ryukyu appeared to switch to a higher — and smoother — intensity level. It began with the basics — old-fashioned hard work.
Woodbury passed the ball inside to Newton, who was fouled attacking the basket. The Indiana University product sank two free throws at the 8:32 mark of the second to trim the lead to 27-16, and a Namizato layup brought the Okinawan squad within nine points.
Ryukyu’s depth gives its first-year head coach, Koto Toyama, ample opportunities to mix and match his veterans and younger players in a variety of combinations, and his second-quarter rotation featured McHenry and Woodbury both playing all 10 minutes.
“We were patient,” Toyama said, describing the game. “And we hustled at both ends of the court. On offense, we attacked and shared the ball.”
Woodbury, who attended the University of Georgia, was the star of the second quarter. He had 12 of Ryukyu’s 24 points in the period, making 4 of 7 shots from the field and 3 of 3 at the line.
Looking at Woodbury’s impact on the game and for the team in his first season with the Kings, McHenry had this to say: “I think he came in (this season) and he’s fulfilling his job. He knows that he’s here to score and he’s good for us coming off the bench. He’s that spark that we need like you saw today. . . . I think he’s filled in nicely.
“He’s been a tremendous help this year.”
As the Golden Kings chipped away at the lead in the second quarter, Woodbury was everywhere, grabbing rebounds, running the floor and finishing plays. A Woodbury 3 brought Ryukyu within 29-25 near the midway point of the quarter, and the forward’s layup off a Chiba turnover made it 34-31 moments later. In between, he converted a fall-away driving shot and canned the subsequent free throw.
The Jets held onto the lead throughout the second quarter. Itakura sank two free throws at the 1:32 mark as Chiba took a 38-34 lead, and Tanaka sank the second of two shots for a 40-36 advantage with 25 seconds before the break.
Larkai made a difficult baseline bank shot with 3 seconds left before halftime. That made it 40-38, Chiba. And it set the tone for a too-close-for-comfort second half. The lead was in single digits, never more than a five-point margin, the rest of the way.
“I thought we came up with big stops when we needed it,” McHenry said in a post-game interview, “and the only thing I would say that we need to work on is rebounding. They dominated us on the boards today.”
Moments after the game ended, McHenry said Yamauchi’s two big baskets were not a huge surprise to him.
“He stepped it up from last year to this year a lot,” McHenry said. “He’s taken on a starting role . . . and he made some big plays today. But we see it all the time in practice. And he works very hard on the game, and he has a good attitude and he’s very coachable, so it was only right that he could take the last two shots like that.”
Werner, meanwhile, viewed the game as a learning tool for the Jets.
“They are a really good team,” he said of the Golden Kings. “Hopefully this is something that we can use to build from. . . . Obviously, it’s tough to lose games at the end that are close like that, but hopefully going forward we’ll be a better team because of it.”
Broncos 106, Shining Suns 100
In Gyoda, Saitama Prefecture, the hosts raced out to a 31-6 lead after one quarter and held on to beat Miyazaki in the day’s other afternoon contest.
The Shining Suns, who have a league-worst 7-34 record, cut the deficit to 50-40 at halftime.
Saitama improved to 11-28.
Saturday evening results: Tokyo Cinq Reves 90, Toyama Grouses 83; Gunma Crane Thunders 78, Shimane Susanoo Magic 72; Akita Northern Happinets 78, Kyoto Hannaryz 77; Sendai 89ers 85, Oita HeatDevils 74; Osaka Evessa 86, Shinshu Brave Warriors 66; and Rizing Fukuoka 95, Takamatsu Five Arrows 86.
The last word: “We played one of our best games tonight. I thought we were as active and aggressive on the defensive end as we have been all year. (Dominique) Keller was very aggressive from the start and Randall Orr had his best game for us since he’s been here. I thought his play off the bench especially in the first half was key for us. We did a good job of keeping our composure whenever they made a run. Shimane will come out more determined tomorrow so we’ll have to be ready for that.” — Gunma coach Ryan Blackwell, reflecting on his team’s series-opening victory.
Note: Look for a full recap of weekend games in The Japan Times’ online edition on Monday.