Larkai leads Phoenix past Apache into Final Four


HAMAMATSU, Shizuoka Pref. — There was no upset of epic proportions on Sunday at Hamamatsu Arena.

Instead, the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix relied on their strong veterans and steady role players to direct them to a 90-80 win over the underdog Tokyo Apache in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. With the series sweep, coach Kazuo Nakamura’s team secured its spot in the bj-league’s Final Four at Ariake Colosseum.

Center Dzaflo Larkai, who joined the team in February and made a preposterously impressive 70 percent of his two-points shots in 22 regular-season games, scored a game-high 21 points a day after playing a quiet role (two points) in the Phoenix’s 38-point victory. He had all of his points in the second half in the rematch and made 9 of 13 shots from the field to go along with 12 rebounds and five assists.

Larkai’s 13 third-quarter points on a variety of strong moves in the paint helped Hamamatsu take a four-point advantage into the final stanza.

“As long as I get in my rhythm, it doesn’t matter too much (where the shot comes from),” he added, speaking about his general approach to shooting. His daily workout routine includes a steady dose of hook shoots, which worked well against the Apache.

He credited a sign written on a whiteboard in the team’s locker room at halftime — when the Phoenix led 44-42 — for providing inspiration.

The sign read: “Believe, believe in yourself, believe in your teammates,” Larkai told reporters.

He summarized the team’s objectives and what characterized their performance in the triumph: “Play with heart. Play with passion. Play with intensity. Play defense.”

The English native said it was his best performance as a professional player, while recalling a game from his senior season at NCAA Division II Bellarmine (Ky.) College from a preseason college tournament when he finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds despite having early foul trouble. On Sunday, he picked up two quick fouls and only played four scoreless minutes in the opening half.

Phoenix All-Star William Knight contributed 18 points, Wayne Arnold scored 14, Shingo Okada added 12. Regular-season MVP Wendell White sustained a left ankle injury in the first quarter on a drive to the basket, but scored 10 and added five rebounds and five assists.

White decided his presence was needed in the second half and returned to the game in the third quarter.

“I felt like at halftime I could play good enough to where I could do little things on the court instead of scoring,” he said.

After guard Rasheed Sparks drained a 3-pointer to pull Tokyo to within 68-63 early the fourth, the Phoenix used a game-changing 10-2 spurt to pull ahead 77-68. The lead increased to 82-70 after Larkai sank two free throws with 3:13 to play.

An Okada jumper made it 84-76 and fans responded with boisterous chants of “Shingo, Shingo, Shingo!” Seconds later, Arnold knocked down a pair of free throws to give the hosts a 10-point lead with 55 seconds left.

When it was over, Nakamura stood on the court with a microphone, giving his customary post-game comments. His voice carried an excited tone as he praised the contributions of all his players to fulfill the team goal of reaching the Final Four. But first he praised Tokyo for giving his squad a valiant fight in their rematch.

Tokyo’s streak of two straight trips to the finals has ended.

“We’re not happy about either loss. . . . (Today), we just came up short,” Sparks said.

Then he credited his foe for its strong performance. “They were just a little bit better,” Sparks added.

Big man Julius Ashby paced Tokyo with 20 points and 14 rebounds, Cohey Aoki scored 17, Sparks had 16 and Jumpei Nakama added 12.

Tokyo’s energy level and execution on offense and defense was much better than in Saturday’s one-sided loss.

As Sparks pointed out, the Apache quickly put the series-opening loss behind them. Coach Motofumi Aoki told his players to “not even think about yesterday’s game,” the veteran guard said, and they strived to play better ball.

Coach Aoki acknowledged that Hamamatsu’s strong bench (backups scored 45 points in the series clincher) played a pivotal role in the series outcome. He spoke in general terms about the team’s rough start to the season, but commended his players for their hard work in order to earn a playoff berth.

“It was a difficult season,” he concluded.

Also, Sunday, the Ryukyu Golden Kings advanced to the Final Four with a 79-77 win in Game 2 over the visiting Rizing Fukuoka.

Jeff Newton paced the reigning champion Golden Kings with 21 points. Tsubasa Yonamine added 12 points and Anthony McHenry, Yosuke Sugawara and Kevin Steenberge all scored 10.

For Fukuoka, Thiago Cordeiro was the top scorer with 24 points. Michael Parker, the league’s two-time scoring champ, was held to 14 points, more than 12 below his season average.

The Osaka Evessa, meanwhile, wrapped up a two-game sweep over the playoff debutant Shiga Lakestars, winning 78-68.

Lynn Washington had a team-best 23 points with nine rebounds for the Evessa, while Nile Murry and David Palmer each scored 14 and Hideki Katsumata added a season-high 13.

Chris Schlatter led Shiga with 14 points, Masashi Joho and Takamichi Fujiwara each scored 12 and Gary Hamilton had an 11-point, 21-rebound, five-assist outing. Mikey Marshall added 11 points, eight boards and five assists.

The Sendai 89ers defeated the visiting Niigata Albirex BB 92-78 in Game 2 of their series, forcing a 10-minute mini-tiebreaker period.

Sendai’s Nick DeWitz was the leading scorer in the full game, with 26 points and 11 boards in the books. Josh Peppers finished with 18, helping the 89ers outscore Niigata 35-16 in the third quarter.

In the subsequent tiebreaker, the Albirex edged Sendai 23-17, with Akitomo Takeno and Tyrone Levett leading the scoring (six points apiece) and Calvin Chitwood adding five.