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Streaking Grouses advance to first Final Four

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Maybe 13 is a lucky number after all.

The Toyama Grouses rolled to their 13th consecutive victory on Sunday afternoon, earning a trip to the bj-league’s Final Four for the first time in franchise history.

Coach Bob Nash’s club defeated the Niigata Albirex BB 85-68 in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series in Toyama.

For the Grouses, Sam Willard scored a game-high 21 points and also led all players with 12 rebounds. The University of the Pacific alum was 9-for-12 on 2-point shots, adding two assists, two steals and two blocks. Frontcourt mate Ira Brown also posted a double-double, finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Toyama, which joined the league in 2006, played a smart, physical game and out-rebounded the visitors 50-41.

The Grouses also went to the free-throw line for 39 shots (29 makes). Niigata was 8-for-16 at the charity stripe.

Top-seeded Toyama (44-10), which has won 17 of its last 18 games, will face the third-seeded Akita Northern Happinets in the Eastern Conference final on May 24 at Ariake Colosseum.

Niigata led 41-40 at halftime. The Grouses outscored the Albirex 45-27 in the final two quarters.

Regular-season MVP Masashi Joho had 18 points and five assists for Toyama. Takeshi Mito poured in 13 points and Tatsunori Fujie chipped in with six points.

Nile Murry paced the fifth-seeded Albirex (33-24) with 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Thomas Kennedy and Patrick Sullivan each had 14 points and Kimitake Sato scored 12 points. Shuhei Komatsu finished with six points.

Northern Happinets 82, Big Bulls 59

In Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, Yuki Togashi and Ruben Boykin scored 22 and 21 points, respectively, as Akita routed the Big Bulls and earned a series sweep.

Both Happinets players were 4-for-8 from 3-point range. Togashi dished out seven assists.

Big man Chas McFarland had 16 points and eight rebounds for third-seeded Akita (42-12), which will make its first Final Four appearance in two weeks’ time. The fourth-year franchise shot 12-for-28 from beyond the arc and 18-for-33 from 2-point range.

Boykin, a Northern Arizona University alum, pulled down nine rebounds, and the visitors had 48 boards and held Iwate to 36.

Happinets guard Shigehiro Taguchi also had the hot hand from 3-point land, knocking down 3 of 5 shots in an 11-point effort. He also collected two steals.

For second-seeded Iwate, which had won 12 straight games entering the series, Scootie Randall was the high scorer with 20 points on 9-for-21 shooting. Gyno Pomare added 13 points and Lawrence Blackledge had 12 on 5-for-15 shooting.

Blackledge led the Big Bulls (40-14) with nine rebounds and five assists.

Iwate missed 16 of its 20 3-point attempts.

Akita took a 42-34 lead into halftime. Iwate trailed 62-52 after three quarters.

The Happinets outscored the hosts 20-7 in the fourth.

“All in all, Akita was better than us this weekend and they deserve to go to Ariake,” Blackledge told The Japan Times. “I’m proud of my teammates and my coaching staff. We had a great season regardless if we won the championship or not. One of the toughest seasons I have seen in the bj-league since I’ve been playing here. Four teams with at least 40 wins is impressive.”

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Golden Kings 72, Phoenix 55

In Okinawa City, Draelon Burns scored 27 points, Ryuichi Kishimoto buried five 3s in a 17-point effort and Kibwe Trim had 15 points and 14 rebounds as Ryukyu trounced Hamamatsu Higashimikawa in Game 2 of their conference semifinal series.

The top-seeded Golden Kings (45-9) went 8-0 against the Phoenix this season. Now, they are returning to the Final Four after a one-season absence. It will be the seventh-year franchise’s fifth trip to Ariake Colosseum, first under Tsutomu Isa, the 2013-14 bj-league Coach of the Year.

Hannaryz 97, Lakestars 73

(Game 2)

Hannaryz 25, Lakestars 15 (Game 3, tiebreaker)

In Kyoto, the Hannaryz booked a spot in the Final Four for a third consecutive season, winning Game 2 and the mini-game tiebreaker to eliminate Shiga.

The tiebreaker, a 10-minute, sink-or-swim format, turned into a free-throw shooting exhibition for second-seeded Kyoto.

Coach Honoo Hamaguchi’s second-seeded team went 16-for-22 at the charity stripe in Game 3. The Lakestars were 3-for-5, and whistled for 15 fouls. On the other hand, Kyoto was called for five fouls.