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Playoff race gathering momentum

by

Staff Writer

It’s been an up-and-down season for the Yokohama B-Corsairs.

Second-year head coach Michael Katsuhisa’s squad endured the 14-game absence of big man Wayne Marshall from November through mid-January and the adjustment of adding key newcomers, including Dzaflo Larkai, Carl Hall and Warren Niles.

The squad, coming off a 24-28 season, missed the playoffs for the first time last spring, and a return to the postseason is highly unlikely for the B-Corsairs, who improved to 12-32 with a 98-63 triumph over visiting Fukushima on Sunday.

Yokohama is in 10th place in the 12-team Eastern Conference. Ninth-place Gunma (16-28) and eighth-place Fukushima (17-29) are the likely candidates to secure that final playoff spot.

The B-Corsairs have eight games left to play — with two-game series against Tokyo (twice), Gunma and Saitama (5-39).

Fukushima, meanwhile, wraps up its inaugural season with series against Tokyo, Toyama and Shinshu (18-26). The middle series against the Final Four-chasing Grouses (31-15) could be the most pivotal one for Firebonds coach Hiroki Fujita’s team.

Gunma, vying for its first-ever playoff berth as a third-year franchise, faces Shinshu, Yokohama, Takamatsu (14-32) and Toyama to close out the season.

While the odds are against it, Katsuhisa’s squad plays with a fiery intensity and fierce determination, part of which can be attributed to the team’s championship experience, an improbable rise to the top as a second-year franchise in the 2012-13 season under then-coach Reggie Geary. But only four players remain from that squad: guards Masayuki Kabaya, Kenji Yamada, Seiji Kono and Satoshi Hisayama.

Katsuhisa, who worked under Geary, knows how to push his players and challenge them “to come out with more energy . . . and have more pride defensively,” as Niles recounted his coach’s message in a post-game interview on Sunday.

Niles, who played college ball at Oral Roberts, leads the B-Corsairs with 19.5 points per game. Hall, who joined the team mid-season from Shinshu, has contributed 18.3 points in 18 games.

Hall demonstrated that he can be a force at both ends of the floor in Sunday’s contest against Fukushima with a 21-point, 19-rebound, four-assist, two-block effort on his 26th birthday.

After the series finale, Niles was asked if team cohesion is a defining trait at this stage of the season — if the players were all on the same page.

He said, “Yes, we’re definitely on the same page as a team. I think right now we are playing pretty good basketball, and I know since it’s the end of the season we are trying to get the last playoff push. We need to be at our best and I think right now is the time that should happen.”

Yokohama is 4-6 in its past 10 games, and it will play six of its final eight games on the road as it tries to defy the odds and advance to the postseason.

Hall called it “a three-team fight” for the last playoff berth.

“It’s going to be an all-out war, I know, these last eight games,” he added.

“The guys are hungry. We’ve got to get it done, man, eight games in a row. Hopefully we go 6-0 on the road . . . hopefully we are finishing strong.”

Did you know?: Iwate is 6-0 in games that Shota Onodera scores 10 or more points.

The 20-year-old shooting guard scored a season-high 27 points on Jan. 25 against Gunma, knocking down 5 of 6 3-pointers and 8 of 9 free throws while pulling down seven rebounds.

A native of Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, Onodera is averaging 5.6 points and has appeared in all 46 Big Bulls games this season.

“He is an X-factor for us,” Iwate coach Dai Oketani told The Japan Times. “He is getting (to be) a man from a 20-year-old ‘young boy.’ ”

Weekly schedule: It’s a light week, with only 10 of 22 teams in action. Here are the five matchups, the first of which tips off on Friday: Fukuoka vs. Ryukyu, Shinshu vs. Gunma, Saitama vs. Shiga, Hamamatsu vs. Nara and Tokyo vs. Yokohama.

League accolades: Niigata forward Thomas Kennedy was chosen as the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP, and Sendai guard Kejuan Johnson was named the league’s March MVP award winner.

Kennedy, a University of Detroit Mercy alum, scored 24 points with six rebounds and three blocks in a Saturday win over East rival Toyama. A day later, Kennedy had 32 points, six rebounds and six assists in an OT triumph over the Grouses. The high-energy forward was a go-to scorer for the B-Corsairs championship squad.

Johnson, who leads the league in scoring (23.5 ppg), played a pivotal role in the 89ers’ 9-0 march through March. (The team rides a 10-game win streak into the season’s final month.

In March, the Long Beach State product averaged 28.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 4.0 steals. Johnson had a 30-point, 10-rebound, 10-steal effort on March 21 against Yokohama. In that game, he tied the league’s single-game steal record.

Last Friday, in a double-overtime triumph over Tokyo, Johnson had 52 points, tying the second-highest total in league history, and added 13 rebounds, six steals and five assists. Indeed, he’s established himself as a finalist for the all-league first team (Best Five team) and is a worthy MVP candidate.

Growth of the officiating department: When the upstart circuit held its first games in November 2005, there were 15 referees listed in the league’s first guidebook. When the league began its 10th season in October, 47 referees were listed in the newest guidebook, with only four of them featured in the aforementioned first book. The quartet: Tadao Kubota, David Law, Norihito “Gonzo” Okawara and David Law.

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