The Shinshu Brave Warriors aren’t at the top of the Eastern Conference standings. And the Nagano Prefecture-based club isn’t the metaphorical king of the hill.
But they’ve made giant steps in the right direction. And over the past several weeks, Shinshu coach Koju Munakata’s squad has become one of the league’s most-dangerous, most-improved teams.
The Brave Warriors continued with that theme over the weekend, completing a series sweep over the East-leading Sendai 89ers, escaping with an 83-82 road triumph on Sunday at Xebio Arena.
Shinshu (17-19) has won six straight games and eight of its last nine.
Xavier Gibson, the team’s leading scorer this season (22.4 points per game) paced the visitors with 28 points on 12-for-17 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds, collected two steals and blocked two shots. Mike Bell finished with 17 points and eight boards, Yosuke Saito added 11 points and Yasuhiko Wada and Joe Wolfinger both scored nine points. Wolfinger, who has played in 16 games since joining the club, hauled in 11 rebounds.
The Brave Warriors capitalized on their trips to the free-throw line, knocking down 16 of 20 shots.
Sendai (25-11) led 30-14 after the first quarter, but Shinshu chipped away at the lead to secure a comeback victory.
Wendell White led the 89ers with 25 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. Jamal Boykin had 19 points and eight rebounds and Fumiya Sato had 11 points. Terrance Shannon added 10 points.
For Bell and his teammates, the past month has been a basketball joyride.
“We (the team) are having so much fun now,” Bell told The Japan Times on Sunday. “We all are figuring out how to play with each other and most importantly win some games.”
Gibson delivered the heroics on Saturday, canning a buzzer-beater in Shinshu’s 82-80 win. Bell made the game-deciding shot a day later in crunch time.
Despite big changes to their roster, the Brave Warriors have made a dramatic turnaround.
“We started over as a team four times this season with learning new players, their style of play and their personalities as well,” said Bell of a team that lost 14 of its opening 20 games.
“I played 15 games straight with only one other American as a teammate, due to injuries and (other factors), and the other American that we were playing with changed three times throughout that time period,” he added. “So the first thing I will say is a key to our turnaround is Joe coming to the team and contributing as an inside force and finally having a full team.
“What definitely can’t go unnoticed is Xavier Gibson’s presence. He’s the most talented player in Japan and that makes it easier to have success having him as a teammate. And as far as me, I do some of everything on the court so it balances everything out because it allows everybody to do what they are great at, then I’ll just fit in wherever to contribute.”
Bell, a Florida Atlantic University product, insisted that the seventh-place Brave Warriors are a balanced team with key contributors at each position.
“Every Japanese player has the ability to score,” Bell said. “We have a lot of weapons. We’ve been working hard in practice and going at each other every day, which is leading to us building chemistry and growing together as a team. I mean of course we are serious about taking care of business, but we aren’t forgetting to have fun in the process.”
And how has first-year bench boss Munakata handled all the changes? Has he been flexible in his approach to running the team and plotting the Xs and Os during the games?
“Flexible, yes,” Bell said of Munakata. “He keeps it simple. He has his own style and system, but he find ways to make the most out of it depending on the personnel. Like me for example — I’m not a 5 man, back-to-the-basket post player, and that’s usually what he wants, but he finds ways to let me still play my game — let it fly from downtown — and also contribute as if I was a post player at the same time. But no week is the same as the one before.
“We prepare and focus on different things depending on who our next opponent is.”
For Munakata, a never-give-up attitude is at the core of his coaching philosophy.
Bell said, “Coach stresses (to) never stop playing. We were down 14 yesterday and 20 today and continued to play as if the score was tied and somehow found a way to win.”
The Brave Warriors next prepare to face the Fukushima Firebonds (at home), Akita Northern Happinets (away) and Toyama Grouses (home) over the next three weekends. All three foes are ahead of them in the East standings, so this stretch of play, including the two-game set against Sendai, is a critical stage of the season for Shinshu.
Big Bulls 88, B-Corsairs 67
In Takizawa, Iwate Prefecture, Hayato Kantake scored 22 points and big man Abdullahi Kuso, a Gonzaga University alum, had 17 points, 21 rebounds and five blocks to lead the hosts past Yokohama and complete a weekend sweep.
Kantake drained 4 of 5 3-point shots. Tatsunori Fujie had 15 points and Alandise Harris added 14 points and eight assists.
Iwate (19-15) out-rebounded Yokohama 48-33.
Kenji Yamada and Carl Hall each scored 15 points for the B-Corsairs (16-20) and Cory Johnson had 11. Seiji Kono and Kenji Yamada finished with 10 points apiece.
Grouses 89, Northern Happinets 82
In Akita, Toyama took a commanding 21-point lead into halftime and held off the hosts’ strong effort in the fourth quarter to salvage a series split.
In the final stanza, Akita’s 31 points were too little, too late.
Drew Viney, a Loyola Marymount product, led the Grouses (23-11) with 31 points and Duke Crews supplied 25 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. Former league MVP Masashi Joho added 14 points and eight assists, while shooting guard Ryo Yamazaki had a season-high 11 points.
Happinets big man Ray Turner finished with 26 points and 21 rebounds and Shigehiro Taguchi scored 17 points. Richard Roby and Scott Morrison added 13 and 10 points, respectively, for Akita (23-11).
Golden Kings 95, Susanoo Magic 58
In Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture, Ryukyu rebounded from a 17-point loss on Saturday with an impressive performance against Shimane to earn a series split.
The Golden Kings (24-10) outscored the visitors 49-21 in the first and fourth quarters.
Draelon Burns paced Ryukyu with 20 points and Evan Ravenel contributed 19 points, eight boards and five assists. Shuhei Kitagawa, who was 4-for-4 on 3s, added 14 points, while Anthony McHenry had 12 points and seven assists. Ryuichi Kishimoto had eight points.
The Golden Kings were keyed by stellar shooting from 3-point range (13 of 27) and the free-throw line (14 of 15). They handed out 25 assists against nine turnovers.
Scootie Randall scored 18 points for the Susanoo Magic (26-10) and Edward Yamamoto had 16. Shimane finished with eight assists and 21 turnovers.
Phoenix 104, HeatDevils 90
In Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, Reggie Warren notched a double-double (24 points, 11 rebounds) in his 350th regular-season game in a bj-league uniform and Kejuan Johnson had 24 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists as the reigning champions defeated Oita Ehime.
Johnson sealed the win at the charity stripe, nailing 12 of 12 shots.
DeAngelo Kirkland scored 16 points and Shinnosuke Oishi poured in 10 for Hamamatsu Higashimikawa (24-10).
Chehales Tapscott had 32 points and 13 boards for the HeatDevils (9-25), while Patrick Simon scored 20.
Hannaryz 75, Lakestars 63
In Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, the Hannaryz shot 59.1 percent from 3-point range and cruised past Kansai rival Shiga.
Moses Ehambe had 20 points and Tyren Johnson scored 14 points with seven boards for the Hannaryz (27-7), who have won five straight games. Sunao Murakami added 11 points.
The Lakestars trailed 38-22 at halftime.
Yu Okada and Jeff Parmer scored 18 points apiece for Shiga (22-12).
Firebonds 98, Cinq Reves 70
In Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, Stephan Van Treese and Le’Bryan Nash were an unstoppable tandem against the East’s worst team as the Firebonds won their second game in as many days.
Van Treese scored 28 points on 11-for-16 shooting and pulled down 14 rebounds. Nash, a rookie who was the All-Star Game MVP last month, added 24 points, nine boards and five assists. Floor leader Masaya Karimata contributed 13 points and seven assists and veteran guard Kenya Tomori drained four 3s in a 12-point outing for the Firebonds (21-13).
Andre Murray paced the Cinq Reves (1-33) with 33 points and John Florveus had 12 with 11 rebounds.
Albirex BB 84, Wat’s 75
In Niigata, Wayne Arnold’s inspiring 28-point, 11-assist performance ignited the hosts, who extended their winning streak to seven games by beating Aomori.
Arnold, who had 41 points in last Sunday’s series finale against Yokohama, had the hot hand in the rematch against the Wat’s. The veteran shooting guard sank 6 of 12 3s.
Shuhei Komatsu poured in 16 points and Faye Pape Mour added 13 points and 14 rebounds for Niigata (24-12) and Ryan Reid had 12 points and 21 boards. Kimitake Sato scored 11 points.
The Albirex offensive performed like a high-octane sports car, with 16 assists and four turnovers in the 40-minute contest.
Jesse Perry paced Aomori (15-21) with 23 points and 14 rebounds. It was an up-and-down game for the former University of Arizona Wildcat. He was 0-for-10 on 3s and 9-for-18 from inside the arc.
Bambitious 69, Five Arrows 54
In Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, Tatsuya Suzuki scored 24 points and doled out seven assists and the hosts bounced back from a Saturday loss to Takamatsu.
Josh Ritchert had 13 points and Charles Hinkle scored nine for Nara (14-22) and Julius Ashby pulled down 10 rebounds.
Jarvis Williams led the Five Arrows (9-25) with 13 points.
Crane Thunders 94, Broncos 66
In Kiryu, Gunma Prefecture, Thomas Kennedy’s season-high 40-point effort ignited the hosts in a rout of Saitama.
Kennedy converted 15 of 24 shots, including 13 of 17 from 2-point range, from the field for the Crane Thunders (16-20). Hirotaka Kondo scored a season-best 17 points and Michael St. John had 10 with 11 rebounds. Gary Hamilton dished out eight assists.
Edward Morris and Mitsuhiro Kamezaki had 17 points apiece for the Broncos (3-31), who have dropped 14 straight games.
Samuraiz 118, Lightning 49
In Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, Kanazawa took a 94-24 advantage into the fourth quarter against Hiroshima.
The Samuraiz (20-16) shot 71.4 percent from inside the arc.
Shohei Goto paced Kanazawa with 30 points and Masato Tsukino, Marshall Brown and Yutaka Suzuki all had 13 points in the rout, and Andrew Fitzgerald and Yusuke Kodera pumped in 12 apiece.
Tetsuya Maemura scored 13 points for the Lightning (1-31) and Takuya Nakashima had 12.