The Iwate Big Bulls know there’s only one way to climb above the Toyama Grouses and Akita Northern Happinets in the Eastern Conference standings.
It won’t take trickery. What it will take is wins — lots of them.
The Big Bulls have hit their stride, though, with the eighth annual All-Star Game just around the corner. Led by Lawrence Blackledge’s 28-point performance, six Iwate players reached double figures in points on Monday in an 80-72 win over the Tokyo Cinq Reves.
With Dai Oketani, the two-time champion bench boss running the show, the Big Bulls (17-7) have won seven consecutive games and nine of their last 10. With a .708 winning percentage, Iwate sits in third place in the 11-team East, trailing only Toyama (21-7) and Akita (24-4).
The idle Niigata Albirex BB (18-8, .692 winning percentage) occupy fourth place in the standings, followed by the Shinshu Brave Warriors (16-8, .667).
As the Big Bulls exhibited on Sunday and Monday, the team’s overall depth and versatility are among its chief strengths.
Big man Gyno Pomare had 11 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four blocked shots against the Cinq Reves (6-18), a second-year club which has dropped seven straight contests. Josh Peppers also poured in 11 points, while Kenichi Takahashi, Masato Tsukino and Scootie Randall each had 10 in Inagi, Tokyo Prefecture.
In addition to his season-high scoring output, Blackledge, a Marquette University product, finished with 11 rebounds, five blocks and two steals, helping the Big Bulls improved to 8-2 on the road.
Iwate point guard Tsubasa Yonamine, one of the league’s most consistent floor leaders, chipped in with 10 assists and zero turnovers.
“I feel we are getting tougher and tougher,” Oketani told The Japan Times on Monday evening. “We lost a lot of games like today’s game before. When we got frustration from so many things, we used to lose our poise. But today we did (focus on) ‘clear mind and open heart’ to get ready for the next play. That’s what we want to do going to the next stage.
“We shared the ball good and defended as a team in the curtail time. This is from the players’ effort. We are hungry.”
Speaking about the team’s “clear mind and open heart” focus, Oketani, who captured the aforementioned titles as the Ryukyu Golden Kings head coach, said it was a key lesson he picked up from observing all-time coaching great Phil Jackson’s message to his players on the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.
The Big Bulls shot 17-for-22 at the free-throw line to seal the victory. On the other hand, Tokyo was 4-for-9.
After the game, Blackledge dished out his thoughts on the team’s recent success.
“We are just taking it one game at a time,” Blackledge told The Japan Times. “Trusting coach’s game plan, trusting each other on the court, and playing unselfish as a team are the things we are doing to win games. Coach is doing a good job of keeping us humble and respecting every team that we play because you can lose to any team any given night in the bj-league.”
Ricky Woods paced the Cinq Reves with 20 points, including four 3-pointers. Yuji Ide added 19 points and Takuro Ito, playing only his second game of the season, poured in 12 points in 18-plus minutes off the bench. Anthony Stover provided six points, 10 rebounds and three blocks, while frontcourt mate Edward Morris grabbed 10 boards.
89ers 79, Evessa 75
In Sendai, Wendell White’s 20-point, 15-rebound effort steered the hosts to a narrow win over Osaka.
Travele Jones added 13 points and nine boards and Yasuhiko Wada netted 12 points. Point guard Takehiko Shimura finished with nine points and seven assists for the 89ers (12-12). White led Sendai with four steals.
Osaka, which held a 28-17 advantage after one quarter, shot 14-for-25 at the free-throw line in a down-to-the-wire game, where every point was significant.
Evessa center Dillion Sneed, who had nine points and 12 rebounds, was 1-for-7 at the charity stripe, and is shooting 37.3 percent this season on free throws.
Naoto Nakamura scored a team-high 20 points for Osaka (10-16) and Kevin Galloway had 15 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists along with three steals. Naoto Takushi chipped in with 14 points and Zach Andrews notched a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
The Evessa were off the mark on 19 of 24 3-point shots, with Nakamura converting 4 of 14.
Golden Kings 82, Five Arrows 64
In Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, Draelon Burns sank four 3-pointers and scored 22 points off the bench to lead Western Conference powerhouse Ryukyu to a series-opening win over Takamatsu.
Morihisa Yamauchi poured in 16 points and Anthony McHenry added 12 for the Golden Kings (20-3 overall, 12-1 at home). McHenry, Burns and Yamauchi all collected three steals, and McHenry also raked in a team-high eight rebounds.
Ryuichi Kishimoto had 10 points and Jeff Newton scored seven for Ryukyu, which led 65-51 entering the fourth quarter.
Dexter Lyons paced the Five Arrows (13-12) with 14 points and Andrais Thornton had 12. Tsubasa Yonezawa added 10 points. Center Paul Williams, the league’s December MVP, who was coming off 25- and 21-point games last week (and a combined 21-for-24 shooting from the field) against the Gunma Crane Thunders, was held to nine points on 2-for-7 shooting.
Takamatsu turned the ball over 21 times.