Four championships in nine seasons.
That’s the Ryukyu Golden Kings’ remarkable legacy in the bj-league.
The Golden Kings closed out the league’s 11th season, its final chapter, with a solid all-around game on Sunday, beating the Toyama Grouses 86-74 at Ariake Colosseum before a boisterous, energized crowd of 11,038.
The final title makes Ryukyu the winningest franchise in league history, surpassing the Osaka Evessa and Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, both of which collected three titles apiece.
Golden Kings coach Tsutomu Isa spoke about that accomplishment after his team received the championship hardware.
“We weren’t able to get to Ariake last year,” he said, noting the team’s playoff disappointment in 2015. “We had tough times earlier this season and quitting (our new schemes) crossed my mind. But like today, too, if we kept doing the things we’ve done, we thought we would have the result we wanted.
“We lost to Hamamatsu last year and I had so much pressure, and at times leading this Kings club has overwhelmed me.”
He added: “”Hamamatsu and Osaka have won three titles, too, and we definitely wanted to prove that we were part of the bj-league.”
While the large throng of Golden Kings supporters from Okinawa and beyond shouted for joy as the club clinched the title, Toyama fans lamented the end of the team’s magical run.
The Grouses entered the title game with 14 straight victories.
Ryukyu didn’t play its flashiest or most efficient game. The Golden Kings turned the ball over 17 times, but they also held a significant advantage in 2-point shooting percentage, making 24 of 45 (53.3 percent) and holding the Grouses to 20 of 51 (39.2).
Toyama bench boss Bob Nash, a former University of Hawaii player and head coach, said now’s the appropriate time to focus on the team’s impressive journey from training camp to title-game participant.
“I’m going to applaud them on the season they had, not going to judge them on one game,” said Nash, who also played in the NBA, in his fourth season at the helm.
“Obviously we are disappointed in the game. But we are not disappointed in the season.”
He added: “I think you have to give credit to Okinawa. They played a (strong) game.”
Nash pinpointed 2-point field goals as “the big difference” in the game.
Across the board, most of the game statistics were similar. Besides 2-point shooting, Ryukyu’s 54-41 rebounding edge was another key stat.
League legend Anthony McHenry, the do-it-all leader of the Golden Kings on all four championship teams, had a triple-double with 10 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists. Big man Evan Ravenel had 22 points and 12 rebounds in the triumph.
“You have to tip your hat to Okinawa,” Toyama big man Sam Willard said after his 10-point, 11-rebound performance. “They took care of business like they always do.”
Willard said Ryukyu makes plays and doesn’t force things on offense. He said Kings players wait for chances and make shots and “let the game come to them.” He praised McHenry for his ability to make everyone around him better.
“He runs the team,” Willard said of McHenry.
Ryukyu never trailed in the second half.
In the third quarter, the Grouses came as close as five points on five occasions, but couldn’t get over the hump.
Early in the fourth quarter, on a play that captured the essence of the Kings’ understated brilliance this season, McHenry deftly dished the ball to Ravenel, who converted a layup to push the lead to 62-52. Moments later, Shigeyuki Kinjo, an original Kings player in 2007, grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a putback to make it 64-52.
Despite their spirited effort, the Grouses couldn’t seize momentum and make a game-changing run down the stretch.
A Shuhei Kitagawa jumper pulled Ryukyu ahead 77-62 with about 3:30 to play in the final quarter. The lead stretched to 19 on two Ryuichi Kishimoto free throws with 1:11 left.
Ryukyu players and fans erupted for joy after the final buzzer sounded.
Toyama was at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, and swingman Daichi Tanaka, walking off the court, saluted the Grouses fans, clapping in their direction to show his appreciation for their support, even in defeat.
“Right now I only have the feeling of disappointment,” Joho said after the game. “We’ve played on this team throughout the year and we’ve had some good times and bad times, but we improved toward the end of the season, being united as one. So we wanted to win the championship by any means.
“Okinawa is such a great team, so we just came up short losing to a great team. At the same time, I feel like I could’ve done better.
After a dominating performance on Saturday against the Akita Northern Happinets to reach the title game, Joho noted the schedule didn’t work in his team’s favor a day later.
He added: “(In the regular season), we’ve had a week to prepare for our next opponents, attacking on their weaknesses. But this is a win-or-go home situation and we weren’t really able to prepare (against Ryukyu), plus, maybe we had some fatigue. But we played a good basketball game.”
For Toyama, Drew Viney was the high scorer with 19 points. Joho poured in 16 points and Duke Crews and Takeshi Mito had seven apiece.
The Ryukyu defense was effective against Crews, holding him to 1-for-11 shooting from the field. He grabbed 12 rebounds.
Starting guard Kishimoto had 10 points for the Kings. He was 0-for-6 from beyond the arc, but sank all six of his free throws. Shota Tsuyama, who turned 20 in April, added nine points, all on 3s, off the bench. Morihisa Yamauchi and Draelon Burns finished with seven and six points, respectively.
It was a tight first quarter, featuring six ties and Toyama and Ryukyu matching each other’s intensity.
There were no big point swings or runs until the Golden Kings closed out the quarter on a 7-0 spurt, initiated by a pair of Burns free throws, to take a 22-17 lead with 3:50 left in the opening stanza.
Ryukyu began to build some breathing room early in the second period. After Mito’s baseline 3 brought Toyama within 24-20, the Kings embarked on a 7-2 run. A Ravenel jam and a Kitagawa 3-pointer sparked the run that gave the Okinawan powerhouse its biggest lead of the half, 31-22 near the 5:20 mark.
Playing with two fouls, Joho sank a baseline jumper to pull his team within 35-33. He picked up his third foul while dribbling the ball with 58.5 seconds before halftime.
Ryukyu led for the entire second quarter.
The Grouses trailed 39-33 at halftime.
For the Golden Kings, Ravenel and Kitagawa were the top first-half scorers with eight and seven points, respectively. Viney and Willard both had eight points for the Grouses.
As a team, Ryukyu made 11 of 22 shots from inside the arc before intermission and 3 of 12 from 3-point range. Toyama’s numbers: 13 of 28 and 2 of 13, respectively.
The rebounding numbers were identical (eight apiece) for the title-game participants in the first half.
“We just ran into a team that was really poised,” Nash said, “and showed their mettle of being here and playing for championships.”
Said Isa: “Toyama plays an up-tempo game like we do, but we were going to keep playing our game. We play 11 guys while Toyama (mostly) plays seven to eight guys, so we thought Toyama would slow down and we would have an edge.”
The Golden Kings captured titles in the 2008-08 and 2011-12 seasons under ex-coach Dai Oketani. Isa, an assistant on the team from its inception in 2007 until 2013, has now guided the team to two championships, the first in the 2013-14 season (after he replaced Oketani’s one-season successor, Koto Toyama). For Isa’s team, Sunday’s performance capped a season that was typical of the Kings (40-12 in the regular season) and a loaded roster featuring a dynamic mix of playmakers, defenders and quick-footed athletes.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.
Akita clobbers Kyoto
In the third-place game, the Akita Northern Happinets pounded the Kyoto Hannaryz from start to finish en route to a 122-74 shellacking.
Akita’s 33-14 lead after one quarter ballooned to 59-36 by halftime.
The biggest key? Three-point shooting. Guys got open and made shot after shot after shot. Credit Akita for setting screens and getting the ball to players in the right spots and to hot-shooting players.
The Northern Happinets (40-18) nailed 7 of 12 3s in the opening half. At the same time, the Hannaryz had no answer for Akita’s inside-the-arc attack, either.
Ray Turner dunked three times in the first half and had 14 points by the break. His team, meanwhile, was 16-for-24 on 2-point attempts, and sharpshooter Shigehiro Taguchi had 13 points, while Akitomo Takeno had 10.
Things fell apart even more for Kyoto (45-13) in the third quarter.
Akita coach Makoto Hasegawa’s club spread the floor and fed the ball to perimeter shooters, especially Taguchi. The veteran guard fueled the club’s third-quarter domination, burying 5 of 5 3s (plus both of his shots from closer range) in an electrifying 19-point performance in the quarter.
The Hannaryz couldn’t stop him.
As a result, Akita used a 28-7 quarter-opening run, capped by a Taguchi baseline 3, of course, to bury Kyoto. That made it 87-43.
Shortly thereafter, a Yuto Otsuka 3-pointer increased the lead to 45 points.
Kyoto trailed 96-49 after three quarters.
Entering the final stanza, Taguchi had scored 32 of his game-high 35 points, making the greatest impact from downtown (8 of 9 on 3s before the fourth).
Taguchi’s excellent performance didn’t shock Hasegawa.
“The truth is, he’s a strong player,” Hasegawa said of Taguchi, who averaged 14.6 points during the regular season.
Early in the fourth, Akita extended its lead to 101-51. Then it was just a formal matter of completing the remaining eight-plus minutes.
Akita sank 414 3-pointers during the regular season, and the way Sunday’s contest turned into a bigger rout by the minute, it seemed as if the Happinets might make nearly as many 3s in their finale.
Here are Akita’s actual 3-point numbers from its season finale: 19 of 30. The Happinets also converted 24 of 36 from 2-point range, with a jaw-dropping 43-for-66 overall shooting line from the field.
Akita doled out 30 assists, with Richard Roby dishing out nine to lead the attack. Turner had 18 points and 11 rebounds, Akitomo Takeno scored 15 points with six assists and Roby poured in 13.
Kevin Kotzur led Kyoto with 13 points and nine boards. Takuya Komoda and Rintaro Tokunaga each had 10 points.
Despite the team falling short of its ultimate goal, Roby said he’s “very happy to be here (at the Final Four) three years in a row.”
Hasegawa commended his players for their defensive effort on Sunday.
“Akita’s a good team,” he said. “The goal now is to become the best team in Japan (in the new B. League).”
He added: “I’m looking forward to the new league.”
While the Hannaryz lost in shocking fashion, Hamaguchi didn’t point fingers after the contest.
“It’s about the team, it’s a team sport,” he commented.
“We eat together as a team,” he pointed out.
In the paint: Forward David Palmer, the league’s 2006-07 MVP, spoke to reporters after the third-place game. Palmer retired in December after suiting up for the Osaka Evessa, Ryukyu Golden Kings and Kyoto Hannaryz, his final bj-league club, in a distinguished career. Palmer, who flew in to Japan for the weekend from California, thanked the Hannaryz for inviting him to join the club for its final playoff games. He sat on the bench with his former teammates on Saturday and Sunday.
“I’m very grateful the team invited me to come back and be here with the team,” Palmer said.
“For me to be here as an observer and not as a player is a bit strange,” he added with a grin, saying he was “more nervous.”
“As a player, I was more relaxed,” he said.
In recent months, Palmer, now 34, has kept busy “pretty much as a stay-at-home dad,” he said.
But he’s started helping out the Yuba Community College men’s basketball team conduct offseason workouts. Palmer said he’s planning to join the team’s coaching staff in the coming weeks.
“It’s a nice way to stay in touch with the game,” Palmer noted.
To help pay the bills, Palmer sad he intends to expand his workload as a skills-development coach as well. . . .
Hamaguchi reflected on his 11 seasons as a bj-league coach during his post-game news conference. He’s the only man to be employed as a head coach from start to finish in the circuit. (Dai Oketani took over as the Oita HeatDevils bench boss midway through the team’s inaugural season and has remained a head man ever since, with later stints running the Ryukyu, Iwate Bulls and, currently, Osaka.)
Said Hamaguchi: “I’ve enjoyed the work.”
He described the experienced of leading the Sendai 89ers (2005-11) and Kyoto (since 2011) as “my chance to lead.”
Asked about his impressions of the bj-league and the rival NBL, which joined forces along with the NBDL to create the B. League, Hamaguchi responded by saying that both leagues “make an impression for children.”
“We do our best,” he said.