Levanga miss playoff place despite dramatic victory

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

As the final buzzer rang, the Levanga players on the bench ran up to the players on the floor to celebrate their dramatic 63-62 victory over the Hitachi Sunrockers on the final day of the National Basketball League regular season.

But the sad reality was, they came up short in their quest for a playoff berth by an inch. The final postseason ticket went instead to the Link Tochigi Brex, who beat the Chiba Jets 83-73 a few minutes after the Levanga’s win.

Both the Levanga and Brex ended the 54-game regular season with identical 31-23 records, but the latter earned the third and last spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs on the second tiebreaker (point differential in the two team’s head-to-head contests. The two drew 3-3 in their games against each other).

The Levanga had their first legitimate shot at the postseason since the team was formed in Hokkaido in the 2007-08 season, then as the Rera Kamuy Hokkaido, but could not achieve it.

The Levanga nearly lost their own game, which would have ended their hopes regardless of the Brex’s result. They missed their All-Star center Jameel Watkins, who sustained an eye injury the previous day, and were forced to play a tough game against Hitachi.

But in the very last moment of the game, they found a way to win. Down by one with only 0.8 seconds left, American forward Jerome Tillman received a pair of free throws underneath the basket. He sank them both to give Hokkaido the win.

“I want to say thank you to our players,” Hokkaido’s first-year Spanish head coach Juan Manuel Hurtado Prez said after the game at Ota City General Gymnasium, as his club concluded its 2013-14 season. “I want to say thanks to our coaches and our staff. I want to say to thanks to the company, Levanga Hokkaido.

“We tried our best and we competed right to the last second.”

For the Levanga, point guard Tomokazu Abe was sharp from outside the 3-point arch, going 4-for-6 for a game-high 16 points. Tillman, one of the emotional leaders of the team, chipped in with 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Guard/forward and team president Takehiko Orimo, who took over the management of the club when Rera Kamuy faced extinction in 2011, was disappointed that his club missed the chance to be where it always wanted to be by such a slight margin. But he added that it was still a meaningful year for the Levanga to see growth both as a basketball team and a professional club.

“Personally, I struggled with a series of injuries all year. I’d never been bothered by injuries as much in my career,” said the 43-year-old veteran, who had eight points. “But as a team, we only had six wins last year and this year we had 31 wins, thanks to our two import players, and our head coach led us with a lot of energy.”

The former Japan national team star hinted at his own retirement during the upcoming offseason.

Now with the Brex having clinched their place in the postseason, they will square off against the second-seeded Toyota Alvark (45-9) in the Eastern Conference Semifinals next weekend in Tokyo.

The winner of the series will face the Toshiba Brave Thunders, who had the best record (46-8) in the East, in the Conference Finals the following weekend.

Meanwhile, in the battle for the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs, the Wayakama Trians completed a two-game sweep of the Aisin SeaHorses with a 88-86 win to earn the first round bye in the postseason.

Takuya Kawamura and Michael Parker racked up 22 points apiece for Wakayama (41-13).

Aisin (40-14), which had been top of the West standings all year but slipped at the end, will face the Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Dolphins (29-25) in the Western Conference Semifinals next weekend in Hiroshima.