Lakestars oust Hannaryz to make West semifinals


Staff Writer

Playoff basketball brings out the best intensity among fierce competitors. Just ask anyone who wore a Shiga Lakestars or Kyoto Hannaryz uniform on Sunday, or loyal supporters who screamed their lungs out for either team.

Especially since the budding rivalry reached do-or-die time: a 10-minute tiebreaker, a mini-game, to determine which team would advance to the bj-league’s Western Conference semifinals next weekend against the top-seeded Ryukyu Golden Kings.

Eight games had been played between the Lakestars and Hannaryz in the 2010-11 season before the tiebreaker, with Shiga winning five of them.

And then referee David Law tossed the ball in the air for the tipoff before a frenzied packed house of 3,000-plus fans at Shiga Prefectural Gymnasium.

The Lakestars outplayed the Hannaryz in the mini-game, winning 20-13 and earning a spot in next weekend’s series in Okinawa and improving to 13-6 since Hirokazu Nema replaced Takatoshi Ishibashi in February as head coach.

“Sorry about yesterday,” Lakestars power forward Gary Hamilton said during the post-game hero interview, referring to Shiga’s 88-80 defeat that was more one-sided than the final score indicated. “But we came out (strong) today.”

Hamilton, the tireless anchor in the low post, had six points and eight rebounds in the mini-game. Takamichi Fujiwara, who has played for Shiga since its first game in 2008, led all scorers with eight points in the tiebreaker.

“Home-court advantage was so important,” Lakestars center Ray Schafer said, addressing the fans. “So thank you so much for making it possible.”

Looking at the adjustments the team made for a game that started 18 hours after the series opener, Schafer said: “We had to come in, play defense, have energy. The biggest thing is we knew what we had to do, and we didn’t do it Saturday. We came in, it didn’t need to be said (a coach’s message), and I’m really proud of our team.”

Kazuto Aono, who replaced David Benoit as Kyoto’s head coach last April in the team’s inaugural season, guided the Hannaryz to a 29-22 season, including Sunday’s games, and its first playoff appearance, helping the team overcome key injuries to Reggie Warren, Michael Fey, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and others to qualify for postseason play.

Aono broke down in tears in the interview room as he summed up his feelings about the season’s conclusion.

“In the locker room, I thanked them (the players),” Aono told reporters. “They are many good players.”

“Shiga had a strong mentality today,” admitted Aono, crediting his foe for its performance.

In the first five minute bonus period, Hamilton had Shiga’s first points on a forceful layup and Fujiwara knocked down a big 3-pointer to put the hosts ahead 7-4, but Kyoto showed composure and scored the final four points of the period, as Warren and Abdul-Rauf made a pair of baskets. That gave Kyoto an 8-7 lead entering the second bonus stanza.

Masashi Joho sank a 3 to give Shiga a short-lived 10-8 lead, then Kyosuke Setoyama nailed a 3 for Kyoto. Lamar Rice then made a short jumper to put Shiga ahead 12-11.

Fujiwara’s falling-down layup made it 14-11 at the 2:27 mark, and he stepped to the line for a free throw after boisterous chants of “Wara, Wara” echoed throughout the gym. He made the free throw to stretch the lead to five.

Hamilton sank two free throws, and it was 17-11 in Shiga’s favor. Then Warren missed a 3 for Kyoto.

Mikey Marshall stepped to the line with 46.7 seconds left, in the one-and-one and made the first one, to make it 18-11, a lead Shiga would not relinquish.

“It’s a big accomplishment (to advance),” Schafer said.

What was Kyoto’s mind-set for the pressure-packed rematch on Sunday — nerve-wracking perhaps?

“No, actually, we were relaxed,” said Abdul-Rauf, who scored six points in Game 2. “We knew it was going to be a tough game. When you come to Shiga, man, and you win the first one — and just in Japan, period — the second one’s going to be tough. We expected that, and towards the end we had some open shots and we didn’t capitalize, and they got to the free-throw line a little bit more.”

The Lakestars were more aggressive from the get-go in Sunday’s 40-minute rematch. Joho, one of the team’s tone-setters had eight first-quarter points, eclipsing his six-point total on 2-for-10 shooting in Game 1. Rice, too, was in better form in the early going, knocking down 3 of 5 shots after a 3-for-13 outing on Saturday.

The Hannaryz trailed 21-18 after one quarter.

Yu Okada’s tough 3-pointer, with a defender’s hand near his face, extended Shiga’s lead to 28-19 with just over six minutes left in the half.

Nema spoke about his team’s much-improved offense on Sunday, commending his players for making the extra pass, finding the open teammate and producing a balanced inside-outside attack.

“We did a better job today of defending on 3-point shooters as well as inside,” Nema said.

Marshall, who missed 14 of 16 shots in Game 1, drained a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the first half. Kyoto walked off the court and into the locker room facing a 42-25 deficit.

That margin was more a result of defensive intensity than offensive productive, Marshall said.

“We played terrible defense yesterday,” Marshall said, “and we played great defense today. So I think that’s the big difference. If you don’t play good defense, you’re not going to win.”

The Hannaryz trailed by as many as 28 points in the third quarter.

Shiga took a 69-42 lead into the fourth quarter, with Joho’s 15 points topping the team’s scoring chart up to that point. A veteran of four title game appearances — two with the Osaka Evessa and two more with the Tokyo Apache — Joho rose to the challenge when his team needed a boost.

The Lakestars, a day after shooting 4-for-22 on 3s, were 8-for-16 from long range through three quarter, including Rice’s 3-for-3, to create a wide gap between them and the out-of-towners.

Kyoto never managed to seriously mount a comeback in the fourth quarter in the 88-60 defeat.

Six Lakestars had eight or more points in Game 2: Rice (17), Schafer and Joho (15 apiece), Marshall (10), Okada (nine) and Hamilton (eight). Two Hannaryz players scored more than seven: Warren (17) and Kibwe Trim (15). Trim also grabbed 13 rebounds, one fewer than Hamilton, who led all players.

Kyoto shot 23-for-67 in the blowout loss, followed by a 20-minute break before the tiebreaker began.

Notes: Given a chance to do some scouting this weekend, Ryukyu coach Dai Oketani and general manager/president Tatsuro Kimura attended Sunday’s games in Otsu. . . . Aono said Gordon Klaiber and Hikaru Kusaka, who joined the team after the Saitama Broncos and Sendai 89ers, respectively, ended their season in March, were a pleasure to coach, calling it an enjoyable experience over the final weeks of the season. . . .

Marshall agreed with the notion that when Joho finds his shooting rhythm early and plays aggressive, high-energy basketball, he helps jump-start his teammates. Okada, who hails from Shiga Prefecture, coming off a 15-point game on Saturday, said he felt confident heading into Sunday’s game on a personal level, but admitted the team, collectively, faced a strong challenge. “We lost yesterday, so we knew we had to win today,” Okada said.

“As a team, we improved defensively in particular we could do better things.”

Following the season-ending loss, Warren reflected on a season of many firsts for the Hannaryz.

“We definitely had a great opportunity with the players we had,” Warren, said, speaking of a chance to reach the Final Four on May 21-22.

“It’s a new team, everybody’s new (together), but we found a good bond and created a good chemistry right when we needed to; for the last month and a half we’ve been playing great basketball,” he added, referring to the season’s stretch run without reigning league MVP Wendell White, who left the team after the March 11 earthquake.

“It’s a hard way to go out like that, especially with what he had playing to do and to fall short like that.”

To reach the playoffs as a second-year franchise, the Hannaryz relied on “defense to fuel our offense,” said Warren.