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Akita in position for another trip to Final Four

by

Staff Writer

The Akita Northern Happinets gained valuable experience as the back-to-back championship runner-up squad the past two seasons, but they didn’t fulfill their ultimate goal.

Despite the disappointment of losing consecutive title games, the Northern Happinets remain one of the league’s elite teams.

It all starts with a deep roster and a coach, hometown hero Makoto Hasegawa, who has been in the league since its inception in 2005, first as a player (Niigata Albirex BB, then Akita) and now as a bench boss. He is in his second season at the helm.

Akita star forward Richard Roby commented on the significance of Hasegawa’s leadership qualities as tone-setting traits for the club, which has the second-best record in the Eastern Conference (22-10, tied with the Toyama Grouses) behind the first place Sendai 89ers (25-9), while the Niigata Albirex BB (22-12) are in the hunt as well for the conference’s top spot.

“His strengths are he played in Japan a long time so he understands the league and its players,” Roby, a University of Colorado product, told The Japan Times. “And he’s a real player’s coach and easy to talk to and doesn’t run a dictatorship.”

The Happinets have kept the focus on the present instead of dwelling on the what-ifs from the past two springs.

“First we had to establish that these past two years weren’t failures because we didn’t win it all,” said Roby, whose older brother Kenyon Martin had a 15-season NBA career and retired in 2015.

“I like to be positive in every situation. Then we had to establish that we can’t look in the past or in the future and focus on what’s in front of us every game and get better every day and that will give us the best situation to get back to Ariake (Colosseum).”

The bj-league’s 11th and final Final Four is scheduled to be held at Ariake in May, and the well-balanced Happinets have a talented mix of players capable of carrying the franchise to a third straight trip to Ariake.

“I think we are in good shape to make a push for the top spot in the East,” said Roby, Akita’s top scorer (21.1 points per game). He also leads the team in steals (58) is No. 2 in rebounds (229, or 8.4 per game) and is one of three Happinets with 97 assists, sharing that distinction with mainstays Shigehiro Taguchi and Yuto Otsuka.

The bj-league reduced the maximum number of import players each team can carry on its roster from four to three and a two-import-on-the-court limit before the season tipped off. Roby is a proponent of the change.

“With the new rule it really evens out the playing field where anything can happen and the games are much more competitive,” Roby said.

The Happinets, meanwhile, have won five of their past six games.

Taguchi is the club’s No. 2 scorer (16.1 points) and power forward Ray Turner, a Texas A&M alum, is contributing 15.5 and a team-best 9.3 rebounds a game. Former Portland State post player Scott Morrison is averaging 11.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in 30 games. Otsuka checks in at 10.1 ppg.

League accolade: Shinshu forward Xavier Gibson earned the league’s latest Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP honor, it was announced on Wednesday.

The Florida State product played a major role in the Brave Warriors’ series sweep of the Aomori Wat’s last weekend.

On Saturday, Gibson, 27, scored a season-high 36 points on 13-for-19 shooting. He added 14 rebounds, three assists and two blocks.

A day later, he contributed 15 points, nine boards and two assists and swatted two shots.

New addition: The Shiga Lakestars signed forward Jamelle Horne to fill a roster spot vacated by Wayne Arnold, who was on a short-term contract with the club and released recently.

Horne, a 27-year-old University of Arizona alum, suited up for the Toyama Grouses last season.

“(In) my second year in the bj-league I know what to expect with the great fans, the great teams, and culture of Japan,” Horne said in a statement. “I am thankful to be a Lakestar and I hope we can continue to build great chemistry as a unit.”

Arnold resurfaced with the Niigata Albirex BB and scored 41 points, including 9-for-10 on 3-pointers in his second game with the franchise on Sunday against the host Yokohama B-Corsairs.