The expansion Shiga Lakestars took a major step forward last weekend, recording the first victory and the first winning streak in franchise history.
For Shiga coach Bob Pierce and his players, they now have something they can refer to as real building blocks — yes, specifically, their 84-78 and 70-64 wins on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, over the Rizing Fukuoka.
“I think a key thing about all our players is how hard they work to keep improving the skills, even now that the season is under way,” said Lakestars coach Bob Pierce, a former Japan national team assistant coach.
From the get-go this season, the Lakestars (2-4) have reminded this nation’s basketball observers about this time-honored expression: Sometimes how you play the game is more important than winning.
Shiga lost by four points to the Osaka Evessa in its opener and by one point to the Takamatsu Five Arrows in its third game. Those defeats helped Pierce’s players develop the mental toughness they’ll need over a 52-game season.
“The first thing is that those tough, close losses to Osaka and Takamatsu helped us to have confidence that we could come back and win even after we were down to Fukuoka at the end of the first quarter on Saturday,” Pierce said, referring to the Lakestars’ 29-18 deficit.
“The players have learned to stay focused and just keep playing hard until the very end.”
Co-captain Ryan Rourke, who has previously played in Luxembourg and Portugal, has been the team’s most consistent scorer. After an eight-point outing in the opener, Rourke had two straight 29-point games, followed by 28- and 21-point efforts.
The 200-cm Rourke had nine points against Fukuoka in the series finale, a game in which the Rizing coach John Neumann devised a box-and-one defense to slow down the former Cornell (N.Y.) University player. Whenever he got the ball, Pierce said, Rourke was double-teamed.
But Rourke came up big in other facets of the game, playing stellar defense and grabbing a team-best 17 rebounds.
In his 28-point performance against the Takamatsu Five Arrows on Oct. 26, Rourke left the game three times, Pierce said. He was hit in the nose by an elbow and also took a charge. Rourke’s nose was bleeding on each of those three occasions.
“Ryan Rourke has been our leader in many ways,” the coach said.
Rourke is averaging 20.7 points per game.
Forward Yosuke Machida (10.5 ppg) has developed into a more consistent player as the season progresses, and Takamichi Fujiwara, a former Niigata Albirex BB player, has been a steady leader at the point, averaging 6.0 assists and two turnovers a game.
Former University of Hawaii standout Bobby Nash, a small forward/shooting guard, has scored in double figures in all six games and is the team’s No. 2 scorer (18.3 ppg), including a combined 50 points in last weekend’s triumphs.
“Bobby Nash is growing as a player,” Pierce said. “Not just a 3-point shooter, he has also been scoring on cuts to the basket and shooting a little floater on drives.”
To become a more complete player, Nash needs to become better at dribbling and taking care of the basketball when it is in his hands, the coach added.
Another key for the Lakestars has been the development of center Ray Schafer (9.2 points, 6.0 rebounds per game) into a more forceful presence in the middle.
Forward Brayden Billbe, who leads the team with 8.6 rebounds per game didn’t play due to a knee injury on Sunday. But off the bench, forwards Yuta Kojima and Hirotaka Sato have made big strides in becoming productive players and picked up the slack with Billbe out of the rotation.
Upcoming games: The Oita HeatDevils (1-5) visit the Lakestars this weekend. The other two-game series are as follows: Osaka Evessa (3-3) vs. Rizing Fukuoka (1-5), Sendai 89ers (2-4) vs. Saitama Broncos (5-1), Niigata Albirex BB (3-3) vs. Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (4-2) and Takamatsu Five Arrows (5-1) vs. Ryukyu Golden Kings (6-0).
The Tokyo Apache and Toyama Grouses both have the weekend off.
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