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Golden Kings move one step closer to crown

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Ryukyu Golden Kings’ 43-9 regular-season record was no accident.

Coach Tsutomu Isa’s team plays feisty, opportunistic and, most important, strong fundamental defense.

This has never been more evident than in the bj-league’s Western Conference final at Ariake Colosseum on Saturday night. Exhibit A: The Western Conference’s top seed held the No. 2 Kyoto Hannaryz to 17 or fewer points in each of the four quarters.

The final score — Ryukyu 74, Kyoto 56 — was only partly indicative of what the Okinawan powerhouse accomplished.

The Golden Kings made 17 steals, with nine different players collecting one or more. They also forced the Hannaryz into 26 turnovers en route to clinching a spot in their fourth title game.

Kyoto swingman Edwin Ubiles, the lone player on either team with NBA regular-season game experience, was held to zero points on 0-for-7 shooting. Ryukyu’s Anthony McHenry drew the assignment of guarding Ubiles for long periods of play, but the Kings’ quick-rotating defenders always brought extra pressure for whoever had the ball. Like a blanket covering a sofa or birds attacking leftover picnic food at a park, Ryukyu’s defense relentlessly surrounded Kyoto’s ball handlers, leaving little time or opportunity to make a play.

In the Eastern Conference final, the Akita Northern Happinets defeated the Toyama Grouses 109-94, ending top-seeded Toyama’s 13-game winning streak before an announced crowd of 6,379.

Sunday’s title game is scheduled to tip off at 5:10 p.m., and Akita and Ryukyu didn’t square off during the regular season.

The third-place contest — Toyama vs. Kyoto — is set to begin at 1:10 p.m.

Credit the Golden Kings coaching staff for making astute substitutions and using the right mix of players at the right time to seize momentum against Kyoto.

Ryukyu had a 16-0 run and two 10-0 spurts. Kyoto could not mount a long-lasting counterattack against a team with superior depth and talent.

Guard Draelon Burns paced the Kings with 27 points, including five big 3-pointers in 10 attempts. McHenry had 17 points, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks. Center Kibwe Trim provided 10 points and six rebounds and Narito Namizato’s speed and gusty play sparked his club with the added bonus of eight points, five assists and three steals. Ryukyu’s Morihisa Yamauchi finished with eight points, seven boards, three assists and three steals.

League legend Jeff Newton, meanwhile, competing in his eighth Final Four (a league record), added two points, four rebounds, a steal and a block. In Newton’s 15-plus minutes, he was a stabilizing force, making solid picks, the pass that leads to assists, pointing and directing his teammates, doing the little things that produce wins.

Ryukyu led 18-17 after one quarter and then outscored Kyoto 20-10 in the second stanza to build a double-digit lead entering the intermission.

Yu Okada, who had 11 points and seven assists for the Hannaryz, sank a 3-pointer to pull his team to within 44-41 with about 3:30 left in the third period. Ryukyu answered with a 10-0 run capped by a Burns 3.

The Kings led 57-43 entering the fourth quarter, and the rout continued in the final stanza.

The Hannaryz were unable to cut the margin to single digits down the stretch.

Kyoto shot 2-for-16 on 3s. David Palmer led the Hannaryz with 17 points and Chris Holm had 13 points and 18 rebounds. Takuya Komoda and Shun Watanuki both scored six points.

The league reported an attendance of 6,152 for the Western Conference game.

On Saturday morning, longtime Kings assistant coach Keith Richardson posted this message on Facebook: “All of the endless hours of hard work and dedication comes down to two games! Leave it all on the court! We have been unified since day one and we will show the worldtoday! . . .”

In the earlier semifinal, Akita, which lost three out of four against Toyama in the regular season, led from start to finish, playing with jaw-dropping efficiency at both ends of the floor.

The Northern Happinets held off Toyama’s comeback attempts with poise and sustained excellence of their own for vast stretches of the game.

Reaching the Final Four and now the title match for the first time in the four-year franchise’s history, Akita relied on the wits and talents of 73-year-old bench boss Kazuo Nakamura and 20-year-old point guard Yuki Togashi. The former guided the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phooenix to three Final Fours and two titles before taking over his hometown club for the 2011-12 campaign.

Togashi, the All-Star Game MVP in January in Akita, scored a game-high 28 points on 10-for-16 shooting, including 3-for-4 from 3-point range, with seven assists. His daring exploits in the lane, attacking the basket from a variety of angles and with a wide range of moves caused fits for the Grouses. Named to the Japan national team earlier this month, Togashi shined on the big stage on a day when some Japan Basketball Association officials were seen in attendance at Ariake.

Akita sixth man extraordinaire Richard Roby, longtime NBA forward Kenyon Martin’s younger brother, poured in 27 points in 23-plus minutes. He was all over the place, energetic and seemingly in the right place at the right time for a few dozen big plays. He finished with 10 rebounds, five steals, four assists and three blocks.

Shigehiro Taguchi scored 17 points and Chas McFarland added 15 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, three steals and one block for the Happinets. Deshawn Stephens contributed eight points and Ruben Boykin provided eight points, eight boards, two steals and two blocks.

Akita moved the ball with precision and found the open man time and time again. Players moved without the ball without hesitation or missed positioning. It all resembled clockwork, and it produced this key statistic: 30-for-54 from 2-point range (55.6 percent).

On the other hand, the Grouses simply looked out of sync on offense.

The teams had both last played on May 11 in the Eastern Conference finals, but Toyama appeared a step slow or just off in their timing during several key moments of the game.

But they never stopped hustling or working to cut the deficit. Their rabid fans clearly inspired them during their first appearance at Ariake.

Regular-season MVP Masashi Joho scored 26 points for Toyama, knocking down 5 of 10 3s and dishing out seven assists. Big man Sam Willard chipped in with 22 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.

Grouses forward Ira Brown followed with 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks, but was held to 7-for-21 shooting. Josh Gross scored 11 points and Tatsunori Fujie had nine points, four assists and two steals. Guard Takeshi Mito had eight points and six assists.

Toyama was held to 18-for-52 shooting from inside the 3-point arc.

In a postgame interview on the court, Togashi spoke in front of TV cameras and declared that his team delivered a “satisfying” performance.

The Grouses players and coach Bob Nash, meanwhile, slowly walked off the court with their heads held up high after the contest, receiving boisterous applause from their fans on the day their epic winning streak ended.

Akita set the tone early, playing aggressive, confident basketball.

Togashi attacked the basket and earned a trip to the free-throw line, then sank two buckets for the game’s first two points.

It was a repeated occurrence. Akita went 25-for-31 at the charity stripe, with Roby going 7-for-11 to lead the team in both categories.

Akita took a 22-14 lead into the second quarter, and a Togashi 3 made it 30-20 with just over 6 minutes left in the half, and then Toyama trailed by 13 after Roby hit two free throws. Togashi buried a high-arcing jumper to give his team a 37-27 advantage moments later.

The Grouses, however, used a 17-9 run to close out the half, cutting it to 42-37. Brown’s pump fake was followed by a layup for the final points of the quarter.

The third quarter was tight for the first few minutes, and Willard’s old-fashioned three-point play pulled Toyama to within 48-45 at the 7:30 mark.

And then the Akita offense erupted during a game-changing, 17-3 run that made it 65-51 in favor of Nakamura’s charges.

Toyama trailed 73-53 entering the final quarter.

Truth be told, Akita’s sticky defense and on-fire offense overwhelmed Toyama in the pivotal third period.

The Grouses trailed by as many as 27 points in the fourth.