Alvark roar back to reach All-Japan Championship final

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Alvark looked dead and buried early on in the game. But still they found a way to survive.

Toyota Motors rebounded from a 28-point deficit in the second quarter and ended up punching its ticket to the championship game of the single-elimination All-Japan Championship with an 89-83 win over the Aisin SeaHorses on Saturday.

Shooter Keijuro Matsui clicked in the final quarter, scoring eight points including a couple of 3-pointers to lead the Alvark, who will return to their first Emperor’s Cup final in two years.

In the other semifinal game, Toshiba center Nick Fazekas hit a game-winning fadeaway jumper at the buzzer as the Brave Thunders edged the Wayakama Trians 73-71.

Behind Matsui’s offensive contribution, Toyota stepped up defensively and gave itself a chance to catch up.

“The factor for the win was our heart and character of my team,” Alvark head coach Donald Beck said after the game at Yoyogi National Gymnasium. “That was the major factor. Even though we had a terrible first quarter, we continued to battle, we continued to stay together and played hard.”

Aisin got off to a great start and finished the first period with a 32-15 lead. It extended it to 45-17 in the early second quarter. But Toyota tenaciously came back afterward.

Matsui, a former Columbia University player, said that the Alvark had hard time seizing the momentum when the game was young, but eventually got their rhythm from their signature defense and fast-tempo offense.

“We cut the deficit from 20-plus points down to 10-plus points, and we thought we could still compete,” said Matsui, who had 16 points and four assists off the bench. “And we started the second half well, and then we thought we still had a chance to win.”

Jeff Gibbs also chipped in for Toyota. He scored 12 points in the third alone to set up the surge for his team.

Toyota entered the annual All-Japan tournament perhaps more motivated than anyone else. The Tokyo-based powerhouse wound up ending last season without any title. The Alvark were eliminated in the semifinals with a loss to the eventual champion Panasonic Trians (predecessor of the Wakayama Trians).

“You don’t want to talk to me about last year,” Beck said with a smile, asked about the title-less 2012-13 campaign. “(In the Panasonic game) We were coming back from 16 down, we were up one with three minutes to go. And there was a technical foul call. I remember that very well.”

Beck calmly explained that the only goal for the team was to finish on top and that anything else would be a failure.

“After our first championship year (in the 2011-12 season), we only talked about playing for the cup championship or the league championship. So these guys (players) know that. I demand from them a certain level of play.

“The Toyota basketball team, when they start their training camp, their whole objective and goal is to win the (Emperor’s) cup and win the league. So it’s always pleasant (to advance to the final), it’s always what we talk about.”

For Aisin, five players had double-digit points, and four of them put up more than 15. J.R. Sakuragi had 19 and 11 rebounds to lead the team.

“When you play on a big stage like a playoff game, it’s all about your mentality, which plays a big role,” SeaHorses head coach Kimikazu Suzuki said. “We should have played a better defense when (the Alvark) were catching up. We have a bunch of young guys and they didn’t know how to handle it.”

The Brave Thunders triumphed in the 2006 edition of the tournament and will go back to the final for the first time since then.

Wakayama tied the game with a Hiroyuki Kinoshita 3 with 0.7 seconds left in the game, but wasn’t able to send the contest into overtime by stopping Fazekas’ shot.

Fazekas, the NBL leading scorer, had 26 points and 24 rebounds, while Naoto Tsuji hit six 3s for 22 points.

For the Trians, Takuya Kawamura also sank six 3-pointers and had a game-high 31 points.

In the women’s semifinals, the reigning champion Toyota Motors Antelopes crushed the Fujitsu RedWave 70-43, while the JX-Eneos Sunflowers cruised past the Mitsubishi Electric Koalas 85-56.

The women’s championship game will tip off at 3 p.m. on Sunday.

The Toyota-Toshiba final will be held on Monday.