Nobody considered the Tokyo Apache’s season schedule ideal.
But few could argue that coach Bob Hill’s team didn’t deliver a quality, entertaining effort in its first home game of the 2010-11 season, beating the Oita HeatDevils 98-85 on Thursday night at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.
A mixture of old and new faces produced plenty of highlights for the Apache (7-6) in their first of four home games this week. The Shimane Susanoo Magic visit Kanto for a Saturday-Sunday series.
Cohey Aoki, one of the team’s original players from the 2005-06 season, had 18 points after three quarters, and finished with a season-high 18.
Kendall Dartez had a team-high 22 points for Tokyo. Big man Robert Swift added 18 points and 14 rebounds, while guard Byron Eaton scored 10 and delivered crisp, smart passes all evening, finishing with six assists.
“We know how well we can play,” Swift said. “It’s on us as players (to embrace the challenge). To come out like we did in the third quarter (was huge). With four games in a row, to win it tonight is a great way to start.”
The HeatDevils fell to 9-14 under first-year coach L.J. Hepp.
For Oita, Matt Lottich, a three-time champion with the Osaka Evessa, scored 18 points and Kimitake Sato, Damian Johnson and Taj Finger each had 16. Finger also raked in 12 boards, while Lottich had eight assists.
In the third quarter, Tokyo came out shooting effectively from long range, getting good looks and knocking shots down with regularity. The Apache opened the half on an 18-8 spurt punctuated by a jam to give the hosts a 61-52 lead.
Moments later, the Apache pushed the margin to 72-57 on ex-NBA center Swift’s putback of his own miss. The Apache made 11 of 19 field-goal attempts in the third. Tokyo outscored Oita 29-18 in the pivotal period to take control of the game.
The Apache carried the momentum into the fourth quarter and led 72-62 at that point.
The HeatDevils threw the ball away on the first possession of the fourth quarter and failed to stage a comeback down the stretch.
The Apache improved as the game went on, making better decisions with the basketball and imposing their will at times in one-on-one and zone matchups. They committed just three third-quarter turnovers and maintained a strong discipline and attack-the-basket mind-set in the final stanza.
The Apache, who played their first 12 games away from Tokyo this season and have eight home games in Tokyo this month, appeared relaxed and comfortable in the festive atmosphere of its first game at Yoyogi since last spring.
They led by as many as 17 points late in the contest.
The Apache’s evening began with a greeting to fans by team president Chris Hetherington, a former NFL fullback, at center court, followed seconds later by a baseline 3-pointer by All-Star guard Aoki, thanks to a nice long pass from Eaton. Aoki added a steal off an Oita inbounds and layup to make it 5-2.
Tokyo led 9-6 with 5:43 to play, and Eaton, who sustained what appeared to be a shot to the midsection, came off the floor limping. He returned to the court, however, after the timeout to resume his duties as the floor general.
The floor appeared slippery and several plays lost their balance, leading to a number of turnovers and steals at both ends of the floor.
With the HeatDevils playing energized, strong basketball early on, Johnson’s 3-pointer gave Oita a 20-13 advantage.
But the Apache chipped away at the lead, and Takanori Goya buried a jumper in the closing seconds of the first quarter. Tokyo trailed 26-24 entering the second.
Tokyo and Oita traded baskets for much of the fast-paced second quarter, and the Apache pulled to within 42-41 on a Dartez 3-pointer in the final minute before the break. The possession began at the defensive end with a hard-earned rebound by Swift, followed by a patient two-man game with Swift and Aoki in the offensive end, leading to a nice look for Dartez.
The HeatDevils closed out the half with a 44-43 advantage despite being outmuscled on the boards in the first half (32-16 edge for Tokyo). The Apache finished the game with a 60-36 advantage in rebounding.
Tokyo, which went 22-30 last season under Motofumi Aoki, turned the ball over 13 times (Eaton had five) in the opening half, so a one-point deficit was a good position to be in for Hill’s squad.
In the paint: Former Tokyo coach Joe Bryant, who led the club from 2005-09, was sitting courtside. He now serves as bench boss for the JBL’s Rera Kamuy Hokkaido . . . The game marked the debut of Tokyo’s wooden court, which goes against mold of the league’s synthetic court used at other venues . . . The plastic covering in the lanes was torn off at intermission, perhaps a quick remedy for the number of tumbles and near-slips in the opening half.
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