TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — The Saitama Broncos and the Oita HeatDevils both want to be recognized as playoff contenders, not playoff pretenders.
The HeatDevils took a step in the right direction over the weekend, culminating with Sunday’s 99-92 victory at Tokorozawa Municipal Gymnasium.
The Broncos, on the other hand, stumbled to their second loss in as many days.
Both bj-league teams still remain in the hunt for the fourth and final playoff spot in their respective conferences.
“It was a very good game and both teams fought very hard,” Oita coach Brian Rowsom said of a game that was never out of reach for either team. “I thought both teams played well pretty much the whole game. I’m glad that we were able to get more defensive stops at the end to win the game.”
The HeatDevils (18-22) are within striking distance of the fourth-place Shiga Lakestars in the Western Conference, and the Broncos (13-23) have one less victory than the Toyama Grouses, Saitama coach Masato Fukushima’s former Eastern Conference club.
Oita’s “Big Three” played a pivotal role in Sunday’s victory. Ricky Woods led all scorers with 29 points. He finished 9-for-14 from the field and 11-for-13 at the free-throw line, where the HeatDevils had a sizable advantage on the day (28 attempts — 18 makes — compared to Saitama’s 7-for-9 stat line). Mike Bell scored 23 points and collected 10 rebounds, while Matt Lottich had 22 points, five rebounds, six assists, three steals and one blocked shot. Woods also grabbed 13 boards, dished out four assists and made three steals in a high-energy 38-minute performance.
“We are a much better team when we have balance,” Rowsom said. “When we can get three, maybe four guys in double figures, it’s very important for us . . . That makes our offense work a lot better.”
He added: “Scoring 99 points was a very good sign.”
The coach also said he consistently stresses the importance of being aggressive as a team.
“We always want to win the free-throw battle,” he said.
For Saitama, big man Terrence Roberts had a big game: 23 points, eight rebounds and a pair of blocked shots. Teammates Terrence Woodyard and Mario Jointer scored 18 and 16, respectively. Yuki Kitamuki added eight points off the bench.
The Broncos, who led 46-41 at halftime, increased the margin to 62-53 on Kazuya Hatano’s hoop with 5:29 left in the third quarter.
Oita then used a 9-0 run, including a traditional Woods three-point play, to tie the game and change momentum.
“We did it with good defense the fast break,” Rowsom said, citing the keys to victories.
Woods, the game’s most exciting player, scored 11 third-quarter points, using his speed, strength and athleticism to create quality scoring chances.
The Broncos trailed 69-67 after three quarters.
In the fourth, Jointer’s basket pulled the hosts within 86-85 with 2:41 left. But Oita nailed six straight foul shots and Bell drained a 3-pointer to push the lead to 10 with 48 seconds remaining.
Jointer and Roberts both fouled out and the hosts’ offense sputtered down the stretch.
Saitama has little time to dwell on its weekend losses. Instead, the focus shifts to its Wednesday-Thursday series against the last-place Tokyo Apache (12-24) at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.
Fukushima said his team recognizes the importance of this upcoming series and will challenge his bench players to make bigger contributions in the next two games.
Defensive rebounding was another one of Oita’s strengths in the series finale. The HeatDevils held a 51-36 edge in boards, including a 28-19 advantage on the defensive glass. Many of those rebounds were turned into fast-break opportunities, especially giving Woods, a gifted transition scorer, chances to slice his way through traffic on the run, adding some excitement to a well-rounded win.
“We needed (these wins),” Rowsom declared.
Then he said, “We actually play better on the road this season than home games. I don’t know why . . . and we are fighting for the fourth position for a playoff spot, so we needed to get a winning streak. We need to win two, three, four games in a row. And this weekend was the start.”
The Takamatsu Five Arrows, Oita’s foe next weekend in Kyushu, are 3-1 in the season series.
Elsewhere Sunday, the host Ryukyu Golden Kings completed a series sweep, handing the Takamatsu Five Arrows an 87-74 defeat.
All-Star center George Leach finished with 24 points and 15 rebounds and Masashi Obuchi added 16 points for the Golden Kings (26-14). Kevin Steenberge had 15 points and 11 boards and Yosuke Sugawara scored 12.
Yu Okada led the Five Arrows with 22 points. Jeffrey Price had 18 points for Takamatsu (11-27) and Antoine Broxsie chipped in with a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds).
Dzaflo Larkai scored 22 points and Wendell White had 20 in the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix’s 102-85 road win over the Kyoto Hannaryz.
Wayne Arnold had a 16-point outing, Masahiro Oguchi supplied 11 points and six assists and William Knight scored 10 for Hamamatsu (30-8), which rebounded from Saturday’s loss.
Josh Bostic paced the Hannaryz with 23 points and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf continued his late-season scoring tear with 20 points. John Clifford added 16 points and Naoto Takushi scored eight. Sunao Murakami dished out five assists for Kyoto (14-22).
Led by Mikey Marshall’s 24-point performance and Gary Hamilton’s gritty 16-point, 17-rebound, six-assist effort, the Shiga Lakestars earned a series split, beating the Toyama Grouses 87-73.
Shiga, which improved to 21-19, also got 14 points from Ray Schaefer and 13 from Masashi Joho.
Marshall also had nine rebounds and three blocks, solid numbers in his fourth game in a Shiga uniform. The Lakestars are 3-1 since signing Marshall.
Brian Harper had a team-best 26 points for Toyama (14-22). Makoto Kato scored 10 and Brandon Thomas finished with nine points, 10 rebounds and five assists in defeat.
The Niigata Albirex BB were held to less than 60 points for the second straight game.
The Sendai 89ers recorded a 74-59 victory.
Josh Peppers scored a team-high 19 points for Sendai (24-12) and Nick DeWitz and Chris Holm had 12 apiece. Holm also hauled in 15 rebounds.
Uche Echefu had 16 points for the Albirex and Paul Butorac added 14 while Akitomo Takeno scored 10.
Niigata (18-20) had 57 points in a listless performance on Saturday.