When a big title is on the line, a winner is often decided by how resilient it is.
On Monday afternoon, both the Toshiba Brave Thunders and Toyota Motors Alvark exhibited this before a big crowd of over 7,500 at Yoyogi National Gymnasium.
But on this particular day, the Brave Thunders came out on top, with an 82-79 victory over Toyota Motors, for their third-ever title in the annual single-elimination tournament.
Toyota Motors rebounded from a 15-point deficit and took a 79-78 lead on a Taishi Ito 3-pointer. But then, the Brave Thunders regained the lead on Nick Fazekas’ one-handed floater with 13.4 seconds left.
After that, Toshiba nearly sealed the deal as guard Naoto Tsuji made a layup off a steal with less than 5 seconds left.
The Brave Thunders won their first Emperor’s Cup since 2006.
Toshiba’s merciless inside-outside duo of Fazekas and Tsuji led the team with 25 and 20 points, respectively. Fazekas had a game-high 13 rebounds as well.
“We’re so pleased about winning our first championship in eight years,” said Toshiba head coach Takuya Kita, who guided the Brave Thunders’ title run as a player back then. “I give full credit to the players, who made incredible efforts for this. I’d like to tip my hat.”
After a close first half, the Brave Thunders, who are currently tied for the best record in the NBL with 24 wins and two losses, ignited their engine. They built a 62-52 lead by the end of the third quarter, capitalizing on four 3-pointers made by Tsuji.
But the Alvark, who came back from 28 points down in a win over the Aisin SeaHorses in the tournament’s semifinals, put up a similar performance and patiently cut the deficit before Ito’s big basket in the final quarter.
The Brave Thunders were as tenacious as well, however. The experience of coming up short last season in the JBL worked on the big stage.
“It was a tough situation to be in,” Toshiba forward Mamadou Diouf said. “But we have a team that has been in semifinals and finals so many times, and we know this is the type of the game we’ll be playing. So we came out with composure. And finally Tsuji and Nick came up with some big shots.”
The Brave Thunders finished as the championship runner-up when they lost to Aisin in the JBL Finals in the 2012-13 season.
Both Diouf and Fazekas said that it was their first championship in their professional careers.
“It was just a great feeling when we won, because of what happened last year. We came so close against Aisin,” said Fazekas, a former NBA player. “It just felt great to get the monkey off our back and finally get a win.”
Said Diouf, a veteran Senegalese-turned-Japanese player, “It means a lot. I’ve been a professional player for the past 12 years, but it’s my first championship. So I’m very happy.”
For Toyota Motors, which aimed to win its first Emperor’s Cup in two years, Yusuke Okada hit seven 3s for a team-high 24 points, followed by Jeff Gibbs’ 17-point effort.
During the Alvark comeback, there were also miscues by Toshiba at the free-throw line. The Brave Thunders went 6-for-15 from the charity stripe.
Nevertheless, the Brave Thunders preserved their cool as Toyota was catching up.
And even when they gave up a lead in the closing minute, they didn’t panic because they had offensive weapons they could rely on in Fazekas and Tsuji.
“We’ve won some games in our last plays before,” Toshiba’s young point guard Ryusei Shinoyama said. “So we weren’t shaken at all.”
The 210-cm Fazekas said, “It was a shot I feel very confident shooting. It’s a shot I like to shoot, a one-handed shot. I was happy it went in.”
The NBL regular season resumes on Jan. 25.