It is impossible to hide their collective desire to win a championship.
For the Rizing Fukuoka, the intensity of their 55th game this season produced a collective trademark that was evident since the start of the 2012-13 bj-league season: Reggie Warren’s fiery leadership, Julius Ashby’s inside muscle and hustle, Josh Peppers’ explosive scoring, Akitomo Takeno’s polished perimeter game, the gutsy defense of Jun Nakanishi and Masahiro Kano . . . the list goes on.
With a superb start to the first quarter and total domination in the third quarter, the Rizing overwhelmed the Kyoto Hannaryz for key stretches of Saturday afternoon’s Western Conference final.
How one-sided was it?
Kyoto was held to one third-quarter point. One. The Hannaryz shot 0-for-18 in that epic disaster of a period in an 83-66 defeat before a crowd of 5,899 at Ariake Colosseum on Saturday afternoon.
Fukuoka (37-18) advances to face the Niigata Albirex BB-Yokohama B-Corsairs winner in Sunday’s bj-league championship game at 5:10 p.m. Niigata won the Eastern Conference regular-season title with a 36-16 record, finishing one game ahead of Yokohama in the standings.
Trying to win their first championship and appearing in their first Final Four since their inaugural 2007-08 season under John Neumann, when Peppers and Takeno provided solid scoring, the Kyushu-based club rebuilt itself into a championship contender by signing Warren, Ashby and Peppers in the offseason, adding three players with vast bj-league playoff experience.
The move paid off for coach Atsushi Kanazawa’s club, which eliminated the Shimane Susanoo Magic last weekend, including an overtime triumph at home in Game 1.
“We all put everything together, with the players, staff and boosters, and were able to earn the victory in this stage, so we’re extremely pleased about our feat,” said Kanazawa, who replaced Tadaharu Ogawa as Rizing coach late last season.
“The Kyoto Hannaryz showed a spectacular game and didn’t give up the game until the end,” stated Kanazawa. “Now we play the final game representing the whole Western Conference. So we’re going to be aware of that and aim to grab the championship in tomorrow’s game.”
Ashby said, “Our defense was very good. (At halftime), we corrected the mistakes that we were making so that was big difference in the second half.”
“We didn’t really give them any time to get comfortable,” was how Ashby described what took place in the third quarter.
For Kyoto, playing in the Final Four for the second straight season under coach Honoo Hamaguchi, the afternoon game was a nightmare. Offensive execution was something that was virtually nonexistent for a large portion of the game.
“It was a tough game for us, yet it happens in this kind of a stage. Our players did their best,” Hamaguchi said.
Asked about the third-quarter meltdown, he said, “We struggled making shots, and many of them were tough shots, so there was nothing we could help.
“Fukuoka’s defense was good and had many players in the paint. It could’ve been solved had we made shots from outside. We could’ve stretched them out by doing so. But we struggled to do that.”
Warren had 21 points and 13 rebounds. Peppers scored 18 points, grabbed eight rebounds and handed out five steals off the bench.
Ashby, a Final Four participant for four teams (Takamatsu, Tokyo Apache, Niigata and now Fukuoka), had 15 points, nine boards, three blocked shots and two steals in an active, effective performance that helped neutralize Kyoto’s big men Marcus Cousin (six points) and Gyno Pomare (zero).
Takeno scored six points, Justin Johnson had five and Rintaro Tokunaga and Kano four apiece. Kano had a team-high three steals.
“We were going to play hard on defense from the beginning and it did work and got the momentum,” said Kano. “It was a great atmosphere. It was something we’d not experienced before but we tried to enjoy it and we did.”
Jermaine Boyette led Kyoto with 19 points and David Palmer had 18. Masharu Kataoka scored 11 points.
At the free-throw line the Rizing displayed the same steady calm and concentration as a brain surgeon during a delicate operation. They converted 24 of 26 fouls shots.
Kyoto shot 19-for-49 from 2-point range and 5-for-19 from beyond the arc. The Hannaryz had only eight assists on the afternoon; they averaged just over 16 per game in the season, and that fact handcuffed their offensive flow in the playoff’s penultimate round.
“Our defense did work,” Kanazawa said. “We’ve been an offensive-oriented team and it didn’t change this year. But as part of our offensive weapons, we worked on our defense to create better offense out of it. I think that we were able to show that in this third quarter.”
The Rizing opened the third quarter on an 8-0 run before the first official timeout at the 4:48 mark. That put them ahead 45-37.
Ashby extended the lead on a three-point play the old-fashioned way — a layup and a free throw. For Hannaryz supporters, that was enough of a one-sided spurt, but it didn’t stop there. Not by a long shot.