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Yokohama captures first-ever bj-league title

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

One team’s quest for a first title has ended. The other team’s fight will continue next season.

The Yokohama B-Corsairs outplayed the Rizing Fukuoka in Sunday’s bj-league championship game, controlling the tempo for larger stretches and making enough timely baskets to fill an instructional DVD on offensive skills for a 101-90 victory before 9,764 spectators at Ariake Colosseum.

And the first foreign head coach to capture a championship, Yokohama’s Reggie Geary, brought the championship to a Kanto team for the first time in the league’s eight-season history.

It was only appropriate that the final second ticked off the clock with the ball in Yokohama guard and captain Masayuki Kabaya’s hands. He tossed it in the air with euphoric glee as his teammates surrounded him, jumped up and down and celebrated together.

“We never stopped believing,” said Geary, a former NBA guard, moments after the contest and before he flashed a golden smile when he was presented the championship trophy on the court alongside commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi.

The B-Corsairs have been a model franchise since entering the league and took a giant by winning their first title.

“It’s incredible. It’s unbelievable,” Geary said. “I know this hasn’t set in yet, but these guys have been through so much this season and really have just shown such high character throughout the entire season.”

Around the league, “not everybody believed we had a championship team in front of us,” Geary said.

But the players in the locker room wearing the championship hats and T-shirts, Geary said, “They just believed from Day One.”

After finishing third overall at last season’s Final Four as an expansion team, the B-Corsairs had the second-best record in the rugged 11-team Eastern Conference, tied with the Toyama Grouses at 35-17, one victory behind the Niigata Albirex BB.

Yokohama’s Big Three — Thomas Kennedy (11 points), Draelon Burns (34 points) and playoff MVP Kabaya (35 points) — combined for 80 points. Faye Pape Mour, a Senegalese big man, pumped in 11 points as well. All told, it was an impressive shooting effort for Yokohama, which shot 50 percent from 3-point range (9-for-18) and 54.1 from inside the arc. The champions also made 34 of 46 free throws; the Rizing were 14-for-19. Burns dished out a team-high five assists and collected two steals. Kenji Yamada led Yokohama with three steals.

Reflecting on the title, Geary said, “It means a lot to be a second-year organization and have the success we’ve had over two years. It’s phenomenal. It just shows what a lot of belief and hard work by a lot of high-character young men can accomplish.

“And I’m going to take equal pride just in terms of being the first foreign-born coach to win a championship here. There’s been a lot of great coaches, Japanese, American, Europeans that have competed in this league and for me to be the first one I take great honor and I will continue to work hard.”

Josh Peppers paced Fukuoka with 25 points on 10-for-19 shooting, Reggie Warren had a 20-point, 17-rebound effort. Akitomo Takeno put 19 points on the board and sank five 3s with four assists, and Julius Ashby had 16 points, eight boards and five assists.

Fukuoka was whistled for 32 fouls and Yokohama 18.

“It was a poorly officiated game, I got to be honest with you,” said Warren. “I take my hat off to Yokohama; they took advantage of the situation.”

Ashby said it’s been a great season with a disappointing finish for the Rizing, He said it’s ridiculous the free-throw numbers were so one-sided. “The game was already decided,” he said.

The 46-19 difference in free throws, Warren said, “is unheard of. And it was physical at both ends.

“Man, I’m really proud of my team. That’s what I told them after the game.”

Sideline supervisor Atsushi Kanazawa was instrumental in leading the Rizing to their first Final Four since the 2007-08 season. A former Takamatsu Five Arrows bench boss, he completed his first season at the helm in April. The results were impressive: 34-18 record and the team placed second overall in the 10-team West.

“We were thrilled to play in such a great stage like this and I give the credit to all the members, including our players, staff and boosters. I appreciate them,” Kanazawa said. “We Rizing unfortunately came up short and it’s obviously disappointing but I’m proud that we played as a team through the playoffs and this finals. As we hit problems every now and then, we overcame them aiming at our goal. And I’m so proud of our effort. Today’s game was fantastic and I send the utmost respect to Yokohama.”

Fukuoka guard Jun Nakanshi, who has played in the bj-league since its inception in 2005, reacted to the loss this way: “I’m so disappointed. It was the final game for the championship. But we came up short and we are disappointed. We had things we could do and things we couldn’t do. So we feel like we could’ve done a bit better.”

“But we came all the way here and are extremely proud of ourselves,” Nakanashi told reporters. “We won the West title and it had never happened to us before. So we are proud.”

Takeno scored seven fourth-quarter points in a spirited attempt to fuel a Rizing comeback.

We got there after playing a long 52-game season,” Takeno said later. “We had losing streaks but we never got broken and played as one.

“We came up short for the championship so we should come back here again next year. We will do our best and hopefully step in here again next year.”

A Peppers 3-pointer from the left wing put the Rizing in front 53-49 near the midway point of the third quarter.

Yokohama answered with an 18-5 run to take a 69-58 lead on a Burns free throw with 27.2 seconds left in the period. It was a sign of things to come.

During the spurt, Yokohama got scoring from Kabaya (he had 31 points on 12-for-15 shooting entering the fourth), Minoru Kimura, Kenji Yamada, Burns and Mour, who used his strength to scored a difficult hook shot with little space to maneuver in the low post.

Time after time, Kabaya showed no hesitation in taking his shot. It looked as natural as yawning in the morning.

Then Kennedy sank a straightaway 3-pointer to make it 75-64 as chants of “Yokohama, let’s go!” reverberated through the building.

But the Rizing also relied on the long-range shot for timely baskets, and Takeno flushed a 3 to cut the margin to eight on their next strip down the court. And he did the same thing seconds later, cutting the lead to 75-70. Yokohama came back strong. Burns drew a foul driving to the basket and converted both shots. He was fouled again, the fourth called on Ashby, who went to the bench with 5:48 to play. Burns then nailed both shots to increase the lead to 80-70, and the Rizing never recovered.

Yokohama made 21 of 26 free throws in the fourth quarter, and outscored the Rizing 33-30 in the final period.

“Our flexibility,” Geary declared, “is one of our strengths this year.” He noted that the B-Corsairs triumphed in high-scoring duels against the Saitama Broncos and a grind-it-out 54-52 win over the Niigata Albirex BB to reach the title game.

Falling short of a championship last season motivated the B-Corsairs throughout their second campaign, said Burns. “This just shows that hard work pays off, and it feels great.”

Ashby, who played for three championship runnerup teams (Takamatsu, 2006-07; Tokyo 2007-08 and 2008-09), fouled out with 1:17 left. Mour scored inside on that play, a nifty pass from Burns in the lane for a layup and the subsequent free throw.

Peppers buried a 3-pointer after a Yokohama turnover to trim the lead to 98-90 with just under 30 seconds remaining. This occurred just after Warren’s sledge-hammer power dunk.

Kabaya, a native of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, thrilled the local fans at the outset of the championship contest. He had the hot shooting touch in the first quarter to spark Yokohama to a 23-21 lead by quarter’s end. His shooting motion was fluid and his shots sailed through the bottom of the net — the swish delighted the B-Corsairs faithful — for 16 points in the quarter, including three 3-pointers and 6-for-7 shooting overall. Credit his teammates for setting good picks to free him for good looks.

The Yokohama captain added a 3 early in the third and Shawn Malloy scored an inside deuce to give Yokohama a 27-21 lead. Kabaya was one of the most talented Japanese perimeter scorers during his first stint in the league while playing for the Toyama Grouses from 2007-09 before a stint with the JBL’s Mitsubishi squad. He then returned with the expansion B-Corsairs last season, was appointed the captain and has played an instrumental role in the team’s success.

“He really is a special scoring talent,” Geary said of Kabaya, “and I’m just happy he’s on my side.”

Fukuoka made 9 of 16 shots in the first quarter to counter Kabaya’s sensational start. Ashby delivered four assists in the opening stanza, giving his teammates on-target passes.

The Rizing led 33-32 with 4:34 remaining in the half, and after Peppers sank a shot in the lane gave them a 37-34 advantage. Geary picked up a technical foul arguing a call, sending Takeno to the charity stripe for one shot. He nail it to briefly make it a four-point game. Kabaya buried another 3 — his fifth of the half — second later and Yokohama was within three.

After a Peppers shot was off the mark, Warren secured a 44-40 lead for Fukuoka to close out the half, outworking the B-Corsairs’ interior defenders for a putback before the buzzer sounded.

Kabaya scored 23 first-half points and made 9 of 11 shots from the field, while Burns had 12 points. So, to recap: the backcourt duo had 35 of Yokohama’s 40 points.

Warren and Takeno had 13 and 10 points, respectively in the half and Ashby had eight.

“We lost our composure there just for a second,” Geary, referring to the end of the opening half.

But the B-Corsairs had strong confidence they would play stronger in the second half.

The focus, Geary said, was to get more balanced scoring in the second half after having a “historic” effort by Kabaya on offense in the opening half. He also said rebounding needed to improve — a message to his players.

Geary praised Kabaya for setting the tone to the game. “How he came out and started the game gave everybody a sense of belief that we can win this game.”

Then they did.

Hannaryz top Albirex

In the earlier third-place game, the Kyoto Hannaryz defeated the Niigata Albirex BB 79-72.

David Palmer scored Kyoto with 24 points, including 8-for-8 (6-for-6 in the fourth quarter) at the free-throw line. Gyno Pomare had 18 points and Masaharu Kataoka scored 14. Sunao Murakami added four steals and Yu Okada had seven points and three steals. Big man Marcus Cousin finished with five points and 10 rebounds.

Despite being outworked on the boards — Niigata raked in 21 offensive rebounds to Kyoto’s eight and held a 46-36 overall edge in rebounds — the Hannaryz played tough, physical defense, and to their credit, took away the Albirex’s inside game. Niigata shot 16-for-47 from inside the arc; Kyoto shot 21-for-39 from that area of the court.

“It was good to come back strong after a loss,” Kyoto coach Honoo Hamaguchi said, referring to Saturday’s Western Conference final, an 83-66 loss to the Rizing in which his team was outscored 25-1 in the pivotal decisive third quarter.

“We finished with a win and our players could leave with a smile, and that pleases me,” said Hamaguchi, who guided Kyoto to a fourth-place finish last season. “It was a tough game, but we played for our boosters . . . we wanted to finish with a win.

“Personally, there’s no third-place game in myself; a loser should just leave. But we played for our supporters today.”

Nile Murry led Niigata with 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Shuhei Komatsu scored all 13 of his points in the second quarter, drilling three 3-pointers and two more field goals. Center Chris Holm also had 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Albirex.

Kyoto trailed 41-34 at the half, but climbed into the lead and maintained a three-or four-possession advantage for key stretches of the final quarter.

“It was a pretty physical game, a pretty tough game,” Niigata coach Matt Garrison said. “I thought that the first half we were up there and that coming into the third quarter we could turn things around and make a little move, make a run there, but I think we missed some shots again and starting taking some jumpers instead of attacking and trying to get inside and attack the rim and try to get to the foul line tonight. When we did go inside, I think we just got out-physicaled. Our guards were getting pushed around . . . Kyoto’s a big, good team. I thought they came out real physical in the second half. Palmer did a good job, (Jermaine) Boyette did a good job, a couple of their Japanese stepped up and hit shots when they needed to. They did what they needed to do. They played a pretty good game.”

Near the end, a situation that often would lead to a coach getting tossed prolonged the final outcome.

After a tirade against the officials in the waning moments of the game, Hamaguchi had to be restrained on more than one occasion by Kyoto players and team staff, who tried to get him back to the bench before and after he was called for a technical foul.

Cousin said that his coach was mad about bad officiating and a call that went against him.

A furious Hamaguchi walked off the court without shaking the hand of his coaching counterpart after the game.

The Hannaryz were 0-8 to start the season, but picked up wins and climbed into the playoff hunt as the season progressed.

“(We) kept our faith in each other and wound up united as one in the end,” said Kataoka.

“We failed to advance to the final, but finished third, which is one (place) better than we finished last year. It feels good to feel that we are a good basketball team.”

Note: Look for extra Final Four and season wrap-up coverage in the days to come in The Japan Times’ print and online editions.