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Sea Horses force decisive Game 5 in JBL Finals

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Aisin center J.R. Sakuragi scored 13 of his 25 points in the final quarter to lead the Sea Horses to a 74-65 victory over the Toshiba Brave Thunders in Game 4 of the JBL Finals at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 on Sunday afternoon.

With the win, Aisin tied the series at 2 wins apiece, sending it into a decisive fifth game on Monday.

“Our players played how they were supposed to play for the entire 40 minutes,” Aisin head coach Kimikazu Suzuki said after the game. “Toshiba is a tough, resilient team and they always hang onto your tail, but our players played their brand of ball with a lot of concentration.”

Toshiba got off to the better start, extending its lead to as much as nine points late in the second quarter. But a buzzer 3-point shot by Ryvon Covile at the end of the first half gave the Sea Horses some life. They caught up with Toshiba in the third period, and Sakuragi came through in the final quarter for the big win.

Sakuragi stayed on the floor for almost the whole contest (39 minutes, 12 seconds), clearing the board 14 times, while Covile arguably had his best game of the series with 16 points and seven rebounds (five of which were offensive) for Aisin.

“I always want to stay in the game,” said Sakuragi, who had just one foul. “Coach always tells me all the time to get out of foul trouble, so I concentrated on that. I just picked my spots (on offense), and tried to rest on defense sometimes. I just to tried to be ready for the fourth quarter. I just had to lead the team.”

While Sakuragi, who has won the league MVP accolade for the third straight season this year, had to deal with his fatigue by himself, Suzuki managed that by sharing the minutes with players with fresher legs.

Among the Sea Horses’ bench players, Shuhei Kitagawa gave the team energy at both ends of the ball, allowing starting point guard Shinsuke Kashiwagi to rest.

Kitagawa, who had played just 7:08 minutes per game in the previous three games, played effectively for just over 25 minutes. The 22-year-old guard/forward hit a pair of key jumpers inside the first five minutes and secured the win by sinking two free throws in the closing minutes. He had 10 points and three rebounds.

“(Starters) Kashiwagi and (Shogo) Asayama were tired,” Suzuki said. “We couldn’t afford to lose any more games, but we had to use our guys on the bench, trusting their game, because they have been doing a good job since the regular season. I made that decision when I woke up this morning.

“We finished top of the standings in the regular season (with a 34-8 record) because of our substitute players.”

Meanwhile, Toshiba struggled in the second half. Rookie guard Naoto Tsuji was hot and went 8-for-12 from outside the 3-point line for the game-high 26 points, but ace scorer Nick Fazekas ended just with seven points.

“I think I did my role as a shooter,” Tsuji said. “But it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t get the win.”

Aisin outscored Toshiba 36-18 in the paint.

Game 5 will tip off at 7 p.m. at Yoyogi.