For the Toyama Grouses’ loyal fans, the team’s 14-game winning streak is a delightful number.
But they have another number in mind — No. 15.
That challenge awaits them on Sunday in the team’s first-ever appearance in the bj-league title game.
Head coach Bob Nash’s club manhandled the third-seeded Akita Northern Happinets 99-84 in the Eastern Conference final on Saturday at Ariake Colosseum before a vocal throng of 9,027 spectators, extending their impressive winning streak in the process.
Earlier Saturday, the Ryukyu Golden Kings whipped the Kyoto Hannaryz in the Western Conference final, winning 87-56. The second-seeded Golden Kings led 50-31 at halftime, then used a 20-0 run to open the second half to slam the door on top-seeded Kyoto’s chances of advancing.
Sunday’s Toyama-Ryukyu title game is scheduled to tip off at 5:10 p.m. Kyoto and Akita will play in the third-place contest, a 12:40 start.
The Golden Kings defeated the Grouses in both of the teams’ regular-season meetings, winning 93-77 and 95-80 on Dec. 12 and 13 in Okinawa City.
Forward Drew Viney delivered a terrific all-around performance for the East’s top-seeded Grouses (44-13), scoring a game-best 35 points on 12-for-14 shooting (including two 3-pointers). He sank 9 of 10 shots from the free-throw line, handed out four assists, made four steals and swatted a shot for good measure. And when asked about his performance, it brought up memories of a 44-point game, which he noted is his career high, that he had as a high school senior for Villa Park (California) High.
“I just came out aggressive,” he said.
Nash, a first-round draft pick of the Detroit Pistons in 1972, credited Viney for playing an instrumental role in the team’s triumph. But the former NBA forward and University of Hawaii head coach stressed the importance of team-first ball, noting his team dished out 27 assists.
“You really have to look at the game Drew Viney had,” stated Nash, the 2015-16 bj-league Coach of the Year who guided the club to its first Final Four two seasons ago.
“Sharing the basketball, that’s just what we do,” he added before citing several players for their unselfish play.
Said Viney: “I just think we play as a team. . . . We have a lot of different options (on offense), and I think that’s what makes us dangerous.”
Looking ahead to the showdown with the Golden Kings, he said he’s prepared for another intense game.
“We just play hard,” Viney told reporters. “It’s the same thing every week. If our defense is clicking, it sets up everything else.”
Best Five Team guard Masashi Joho scored 18 points and led the Grouses with seven assists. Center Sam Willard had 13 points and 14 rebounds for a double-double along with six assists and three steals. Takeshi Mito doled out five assists, while Duke Crews had 10 points, including a pair of slam dunks.
Crews’ jam with 2:18 left gave the Grouses a 95-75 lead and put an emphatic exclamation point on the triumph.
When the game ended, a sea of red rose to greet their triumphant Grouses.
“We pride ourselves on being a good defensive team,” Nash told reporters afterward, “and I just think we made an effort to (deny) open looks.”
Indeed, Toyama’s defensive effort limited Akita to 26.9 percent from 3-point range (7-for-26), limiting one of the Happinets’ key weapons.
Richard Roby, a key figure on Akita’s back-to-back championship runner-up teams in 2014 and 2015, had 23 points and Shigehiro Taguchi scored 16, Ray Turner had 15 and Scott Morrison finished with 10. Yuto Otsuka, who was 1-for 10 on 3s, had five points and six assists. Akita had 20 turnovers, the same number as its foe, but Toyama compensated by outrebounding the Happinets 47-36.
“Our defense propelled our offense today,” was Nash’s description of what energized his club.
The Grouses also held a substantial advantage in scoring when the clock stopped. Toyama made 23 of 28 free throws; Akita 9 of 12.
Viney paid tribute to Toyama’s fans for firing him up on the court.
“Every game, they are loud and they support us,” he said.
Joho added nine second-quarter points and Willard had seven.
At halftime, Viney, a Loyola Marymount alum, was atop the scoring chart for both teams with 20 points.
Earlier, Akita jumped out a 7-0 advantage in the opening quarter. Nash called a timeout. His players were a “little nervous and a little jacked up too much,” he said.
Then, the Grouses regrouped and started playing better. They pulled ahead 11-9 on a Viney 3-pointer around the midway point of the quarter.
It was a sign of things to come.
Akita closed out the first quarter with Roby scoring a layup, giving his team a 22-15 lead.
Toyama erased a nine-point deficit (26-17) early in the second quarter by outscoring Akita 28-5 in an impressive run that consumed most of the 10-minute period. First and foremost, Viney sparked the Grouses during that huge spurt. He had 13 second-quarter points and didn’t miss a shot, going 4-for-4 from the field with a 3-pointer and 3-for-4 at the line. His teammates wisely kept feeding him the ball
The Grouses outscored the Happinets 32-14 in the second stanza and walked off the court with a 47-36 halftime advantage.
Toyama capitalized on takeaways in the first half, collecting eight steals and putting points on the board in a hurry at the other end of the court. Joho, Viney, Mito and Willard each had two steals in the half.
All 11 Grouses players saw court time, with 10 of them putting points on the board in the high-energy effort.
Midway through the third quarter, Toyama had pulled ahead 59-44 on a pair of Joho free throws, then 63-49 at the 4:23 mark on Duke Crews’ two foul shots.
After Akita cut it to 12, Kensuke Tanaka extended the lead to 15 with a 3-pointer from the right side.
The Happinets trailed 74-58 entering the fourth quarter.
Ushering in the final period, journeyman guard Takanori Goya, Toyama’s first-ever draft pick and the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, converted a layup to increase the team’s lead to 76-58.
The Grouses kept pounding the ball inside and applying stifling defense on their foe.
Joho scored on a layup with just under 4 minutes to make it 91-71. And even with an insurmountable lead, Toyama exhibited relentless energy.
Exhibit A: Crews, after being blocked by Turner on a dunk attempt, grabbed the offensive rebound and followed with a putback jam with a minute and change remaining.
“It was a really hard-fought game,” Nash said.
After the loss, weary-eyed Akita guard Ryosuke Mizumachi said passing was a problem for his team against Toyama’s determined defense.
Backcourt mate Kenichi Takahashi agreed that the team’s offense had a subpar day, saying the effort and execution “wasn’t there.”
Akita coach Makoto Hasegawa said, “On defense, we didn’t get it done.”
Hasegawa also cited turnovers and rebounding as problems for his team.
Meanwhile, looking ahead to the title game, Nash said his team will maintain the same approach.
“We don’t get too high or too low,” he noted, “and hopefully our effort tomorrow night is good enough.”
“But at the same time,” he added, “we’re going to have to defend Draelon Burns and Anthony McHenry.” The Ryukyu duo helped spark the club to a title two seasons ago.
Ryukyu routs Kyoto
In the early game, Ryukyu overwhelmed Kyoto from the get-go to secure a spot in the final.
The Golden Kings had lost three of four to their West rivals in the regular season, and all four games were decided by single digits.
This time, coach Tsutomu Isa’s team left no doubt what the outcome would be.
The Golden Kings (45-12, including the playoffs) were the West’s No. 1 offense (86.2 points per game) during the regular season, while the Hannaryz (45-12) were the league’s No. 3 overall defense (69.5).
The elite offense vs. elite defense storyline became a non-factor immediately, though.
The Golden Kings’ Shuhei Kitagawa and Ryuichi Kishimoto buried back-to-back 3-pointers for the game’s first points, and the three-time champions never trailed.
The Hannaryz tied it at 6-6 on Kevin Kotzur’s layup with about 7:30 left in the opening quarter. But the Kings’ aggressive play and hot shooting paid off in a big way.
It was a quick, methodical momentum-grabbing sequence. Big man Evan Ravenel, who attended Ohio State, made a nifty turn-around jumper to put Ryukyu ahead with 3:45 remaining in the quarter. Moments later, terrific sixth man Burns dished the ball to Shota Tsuyama for a 3 to make it 19-11.
Guard Shigeyuki Kinjo, a Ryukyu player since the team’s inception in 2007, sank a 3-pointer from the right baseline to increase the margin to 26-12 late in the quarter.
The Ryukyu players were poised and competing with a sense of urgency.
Kyoto looked tentative and was plagued by poor shooting. In short, the Hannaryz looked flat.
The first quarter ended with Burns scoring a bucket in traffic for a 28-12 Kings lead.
It was more of the same in the second quarter.
What’s more, the Kings were in sync on offense, making three or four passes on most possessions, with players cutting and moving and the ball moving inside and outside and/or back out to the perimeter.
Team leader McHenry, a Ryukyu standout since 2008, converted two free throws to give the Kings a 34-17 lead with 7:28 before halftime.
Kyoto’s Tyren Johnson cut it to 34-23 on a jumper in the lane, then the lead was back to 15 points after a Burns bucket and two Kishimoto free throws.
Kishimoto knocked down a 3, a dagger in the heart of Hannaryz fans that made it 45-27, then McHenry scored driving through the lane with just over 2 minutes to go in the half. With the lead back up to 20, Ryukyu remained aggressive.
The ball was in Burns’ hands for the final possession of the half, and the DePaul University product flushed a 3-pointer from the left wing. Nothing but net, and a 50-31 Ryukyu lead to end the half.
For the first half, the Hannaryz were held to 12-for-38 shooting, the Ryukyu defense dismantling Kyoto’s offensive strategies. At the same time, the Kings’ unbelievable shooting — 20-for-30 before intermission — featured 8 of 12 from beyond the arc and 10-for-18 from 2-point range. By halftime, Best Five Team guard Kishimoto had 13 points with three 3s and Burns had 10.
It only got worse for Kyoto.
The Hannaryz didn’t score their first point of the third quarter until Johnson nailed the second of two free throws with 1:02 remaining in the period. His team trailed 67-32 at that point.
The Hannaryz trailed by 38 points — their largest deficit of the game — late in the third quarter.
Kyoto’s only field goal of the quarter came seconds later when forward Takuya Sato scored inside, slashing the lead to 70-34. The Hannaryz missed 15 of 16 shots from the field in the quarter and trailed by the just-mentioned margin entering the fourth.
Burns paced the Kings with 23 points in 20-plus minutes with three assists and a steals. Ravenel poured in 18 points and 10 rebounds. Kishimoto added 15 points and Tsuyama had 11. McHenry finished with eight points, a game-high 14 rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Kinjo chipped in with seven points.
Ryukyu held a 54-40 edge in rebounding. The Kings shot 51.2 percent from inside the arc and 45 percent from beyond.
Conversely, Kyoto’s overall shooting numbers were poor (20-for-72). Kotzur had a team-best 11 points and 10 rebounds and Johnson scored nine on 3-for-16 shooting. Takuya Komoda put eight points on the board and Sunao Murakami had seven.
When it was over, Kyoto coach Honoo Hamaguchi, who has led the Hannaryz to four Final Fours in the past five years, admitted that Ryukyu’s “aggressive defense was very effective.”
He said poor shot selection hampered his team’s offensive performance. He also praised his foe, calling the Golden Kings a “wonderful team.”
Hamaguchi said his team’s weak-side defense was ineffective, which led to several open looks for Ryukyu on 3-point shots.
Kishimoto told reporters his team came out with an aggressive offense in the first half, and then “we picked up our aggressive defense in the second half.”
The star guard called it a “good performance” for his team.
Isa said the game plan worked well for his team in all facets, citing aggressive defense and a share-the-ball mentality on offense that led to good looks all game.
According to Isa, the Kings were known as an offensive team this season. But he stressed Ryukyu is a balanced club, too, mentioning the lockdown defense as a big key to victory.
Hamaguchi’s teams (Sendai 89ers and Kyoto, the latter since the 2011-12 campaign), meanwhile, fell to 0-6 in must-win games at the Final Four to advance to the title contest
In the paint: David Palmer, the former Kyoto star forward, was at the arena sitting courtside with his former team for the game. Palmer retired in December after suiting up for the Osaka Evessa, Ryukyu and Kyoto in a bj-league career that began in 2005. . . . Grouses guards Joho, Goya and Tanaka all played for the now-defunct Tokyo Apache. . . . Joho reaches the title game with his third bj-league franchise after suiting up for Osaka in the 2006 and ’07 title games and for the Apache in 2008 and ’09.