Since losing in the bj-league championship game last May to the Osaka Evessa, the Tokyo Apache have had one clear mission: earning a return ticket to the final.

The Apache took a big step toward reaching that goal on Saturday, turning up the offensive tempo and defensive intensity in the second half of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Ariake Colosseum en route to a 98-86 victory over the Sendai 89ers.

“Good to win the first one,” Tokyo forward John Humphrey said. “The pressure was on us, now it’s on them.”

Five Apache players scored in double figures: Dameion Baker and Humphrey had 24 points apiece, Cohey Aoki and Julius Ashby each had 14 and Masashi Joho had 10.

“Everybody played well, everybody played hard today, especially on defense,” Apache coach Joe Bryant said. “This is playoff basketball.”

Tokyo, the East’s No. 2 seed, minimized the effectiveness of Sendai center Chris Holm, holding him to zero points and three rebounds after halftime. The league’s leading rebounder this season, Holm finished with seven points and 16 boards.

“We played our game in the first half, but it’s the same thing that always gets us — the first five minutes of the third quarter. We have to take care of that tomorrow,” Holm said.

The 89ers trailed 67-57 after three quarters.

“In the second half, Tokyo got into a flow,” said Bobby St. Preux, who had 21 points but was 3-for-12 from 3-point range. “They were getting offensive rebounds and second chances.”

Sendai, the East’s No. 3 playoff seed, turned to the 3-point shot to stage a comeback and pulled within 75-70 on a St. Preux 3-pointer with 6:41 to play in the fourth.

But Tokyo kept composed and hit timely baskets over the next several minutes to regain momentum, including Joho’s layup with 3:18 left that made it 84-71. Back-to-back baskets by Aoki and Ashby gave the Apache a comfortable 88-74 lead with 2:01 remaining.

“Throughout the game, Tokyo’s defense was so aggressive and kept putting pressure on us,” 89ers coach Honoo Hamaguchi said. “And we couldn’t bring the game into a fast-tempo (contest) and failed to grab a rhythm.”

Sendai, however, was solid in the early going. Holding a one-point lead, 18-17, after one quarter, the 89ers were 8-for-8 from the line in the opening frame.

Aoki’s spot-up 3-pointer with 30.4 seconds left in the first half gave the Apache their first lead of the quarter, 35-34, and the final points of the half.

Holm had 13 boards by halftime. Teammate Rodney Webb, another forceful presence in the lane, was Sendai’s leading scorer in the opening half with 10 points. He finished with a team-high 23 points.

For Tokyo, Humphrey had 11 points in the first half, using his strong attack-the-basket moves to carry the team’s offense.

During the game, Bryant reminded his players to “keep playing hard, keep playing hard defense, and I think we’ll wear them down as time goes on.”

After St. Preux’s 3-pointer gave the 89ers a 44-43 lead with 7:35 left in the third quarter, the Apache used a 14-4 spurt to pull ahead 57-48, capped by Humphrey’s 3 at the 4:06 mark. They stretched it to 65-53 on Jun Iwasa’s nifty reverse layup with 1:34 left in the quarter.

“I’m looking at the stats,” Bryant told reporters. “Seven turnovers for the game, that’s amazing. Twenty-one assists to seven turnovers (Tokyo’s stats), you can win a lot of games that way.”

“I think we executed our zone offense perfectly where we got some good shots,” he added.

In Saturday’s other Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Niigata Albirex BB defeated the host Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix 88-87 in overtime.

Forward/center Dokun Akingbade scored the game-winning basket with 5 seconds remaining. He grabbed an offense rebound and lifted his team to a Game 1 victory in the series.

Game 2 will be played on Sunday and if necessary, a mini-game tiebreaker to determine who’ll advance to the Eastern Conference final against the Apache-89ers winner.

Akingbade, who averaged a team-best 18.6 points per game, hadn’t played since March 8 due to an injury. His return to the rotation gave the fourth-seeded Albirex a big boost. Akingbade, who was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States as an infant, finished with 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting and 10 rebounds in 26 minutes.

Antonio Burks had a team-high 22 points for Niigata. He was one of five double-digit scorers for coach Masaya Hirose’s team. Paul Butorac added 16 points, while Akitomo Takeno had 10 points and nine assists and Emmanuel Little had 11 points and 12 boards.

Albirex All-Star forward Yuichi Ikeda forced OT by hitting a game-tying 3-pointer with 26 seconds to play in the fourth quarter. That made it 74-74.

Michael Gardener led the Phoenix with 29 points and Marcus Morrison scored 24. Hamamatsu shot an astounding 51 3-pointers and made 14 of them. Gardener was 6-for-20 on 3s.

Gardener missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer with 3 seconds left and Masahiro Oguchi’s followup shot was also off the mark.

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