AKITA — Saturday’s bj-league season opener at Akita Prefectural Gymnasium will be remembered for its historic significance.
It was the first game of the Akita Northern Happinets’ inaugural season. It was hometown hero and Noshiro Technical High School legend Makoto Hasegawa’s first game in an Akita uniform. And it was televised live by NHK in six northern Honshu prefectures.
By all accounts, it was a big deal for this city, prefecture and region, as evidenced by six TV stations’ cameras in the post-game interview room.
The actual result was a minor detail.
The Sendai 89ers controlled the fourth quarter and recorded a 76-65 victory, denying the Happinets a victory in their first-ever game.
Sendai guard Mac Hopson scored 35 points in his bj-league debut, including 19 in a spectacular fourth-quarter effort, when he was 6-for-6 from the field and 7-for-8 from the free-throw line. Hopson added eight rebounds, five steals and four assists.
Center Chris Holm chipped in with 15 points and 13 rebounds for the 89ers, while Akita native Kenichi Takahashi scored nine, Mike Bell added eight to go along with 12 boards and Hikaru Kusaka also scored eight.
“We had a tough shooting game,” Hasegawa said, not needing to cite the team’s 20-for-49 shooting effort on 2-point shots, for instance. “But we have 51 more games.”
Speedy guard Sek Henry paced the Happinets with 18 points before fouling out in the fourth quarter. The former University of Nebraska standout blamed himself for a “rookie mistake” in the first quarter, when he picked up his first foul and admitted it will take some time to get adjusted to bj-league rules.
Henry drained four of eight 3-pointers, while his team missed 20 of its 25 attempts from beyond the arc. Antonio Burks, one of the league’s top 3-point shooters, was 0-for-8 on 3-point attempts.
Center Paul Butorac, who also fouled out in the fourth, had the first double-double in Akita history (14 points and 11 rebounds). Frontcourt mate Anthony Coleman added nine points and 12 rebounds and Kazuhiro Shoji and Burks scored five. Ryosuke Mizumachi, who started alongside Henry in the backcourt, scored four points and two generations of guards — Hasegawa, 39, and 18-year-old Makoto Sawaguchi — each had three points apiece.
Little by little, the 89ers pulled away in the fourth, capitalizing on their superior size against the foul-plagued hosts. With the scored tied at 53-53, Sendai used a 15-4 spurt to build an 11-point lead with 1:17 to play. The 89ers outscored the Happinets 35-21 in the fourth.
The 89ers’ quickness on both ends of the floor and rebounding were significant factors in the game’s closing minutes. And once they built a big lead, they were able to sustain it down the stretch, especially with Hopson putting his stamp on the game in the decisive fourth quarter.
Sendai coach Honoo Hamaguchi said he was pleased with Hopson’s performance and his execution on the pick-and-roll, a staple of the team’s offense.
“They have veteran players and good shooters, but today in the fourth quarter the Happinets’ offense had trouble making shots,” Hamaguchi said.
Butorac scored the first points in team history, a layup just under a minute into the game. Sendai then jumped out to a 15-9 advantage, but Akita rallied back to tie it at 16-16 on Henry’s vicious slam dunk, courtesy of a slick assist from Hasegawa.
The Happinets took a 28-23 lead into third quarter and pulled ahead 42-30 after a 14-5 spurt to start the half. But Akita’s foul troubles, coupled with poor shooting, saw that lead dwindle and, eventually, vanish.
“We were a little timid, or so over-excited that a lot of the shots that we’d normally make we were not making,” said Henry. “We were winning throughout most of the game but we just didn’t finish strong and came out with the loss.”
With one game now officially in the books, the Happinets were reminded that rebounding will be a focal point in the weeks to come.
“Our coach believes in us 100 percent,” Henry said. “The only thing he worries about is rebounding. . . . We have to be a very good defensive rebounding team because we are not that big. Our guards and everybody has to help rebound . . . We can’t just have two guys go to the glass and rebound.”