MINAMISANRIKU, MIYAGI PREF. – In Bill Cartwright’s view, team spirit is a unifying force that can deliver results and guide a team on the path to success.
And he should know, having played a starring role for the Chicago Bulls’ first three-peat (1990-91, 1991-92 and 1992-93) and absorbing hoops lessons from legendary NBA mentors Phil Jackson and Red Holzman, among others, along the way.
Team spirit was a vital ingredient for the Evessa on Sunday. And while the Sendai 89ers buckled under pressure, and faded down the stretch, the Evessa stood tall, like their 216-cm bench boss Cartwright, an antsy, vocal, animated figure patrolling the sideline in the series finale at Bayside Arena. The Evessa weathered the storm — a rocky first quarter — and emerged victorious, beating the hosts 79-66.
That gives Osaka (17-25) seven straight victories under Cartwright and 12 of 18 overall since he was appointed head coach in late January.
“The very first thing Bill Cartwright said when he became the head coach at practice in the circle in the middle of the floor, he said, ‘Spirit. That’s the key word. Spirit.’ ” said Osaka power forward Mike Bell.
“He said, ‘Everything is going to be based off of spirit. We are going to become a team and become a family, and it’s going to be a great spirit. That’s how you win games, that’s how you play hard. . .’
“We all had to come together as one.”
That team spirit, Bell said convincingly, has keyed the team’s remarkable turnaround in the past two months.
In the opening minutes, Daisuke Takaoka drained two 3-pointers to quickly give Sendai (16-26) a 6-0 lead, and T.J. Cummings nailed a bank shot to make it 8-0. Moments later, the 89ers quickly jumped out to a 13-2 advantage, and they led 18-6 after the opening quarter.
As flat as Osaka looked in the opening 10 minutes, Cartwright, a former Chicago Bulls head coach, knew that a lot of time remained to straighten things out.
“That team (Sendai) came out and shot the ball really well,” Cartwright told reporters after the game. “Because they made a lot of jump shots, we would have an opportunity if we kept working to get back in the game, and we did.”
It took a while, but Cartwright’s message worked.
But not before a Sam Coleman dunk increased the Sendai lead to 35-18 in the second quarter. Then, it seemed, Osaka lit a switch, turning on the intensity and instantly started making key plays at both ends of the floor.
Guard Dwayne Lathan canned a 3-pointer. Lathan, an Indiana State product, scored two more on a slam dunk. Shota Konno (13 points) added a steal and a layup, cutting it to 35-25.
Osaka was just heating up.
All told, the spirited Evessa closed out the first half on a 15-1 spurt to trim the deficit to 36-33.
“I thought the guys did a real good job of staying tough,” Cartwright noted.
Late in the third quarter, Sendai took a 49-43 advantage after a Takuya Komoda layup. Again, Osaka answered the challenge. The Evessa tied it at 49-49, 51-51 and 53-53 in the final period. And then they used an 18-5 run that consumed a large chunk of the fourth quarter to seize control. Lathan’s steal and jam gave them their biggest lead of the quarter, 71-58 with less than 2 minutes to play.
Sendai failed to score consistently in the fourth, going 4-for-21 from the field. As 89ers captain Takehiko Shimura, who had 16 points, said, “We played a good first half.”
The Evessa, on the other hand, flourished in crunch time, making 10 of 15 fourth-quarter shots, including 9 of 12 from inside the arc.
Point guard Shun Watanuki had a terrific all-around game for the Evessa, finishing with 21 points, eight rebounds and five assists. Lathan scored 17 points, Bell, a defensive presence in the post throughout the game, added 12 points, 10 boards, three assists and three blocked shots. Nathan Walkup scored 10 points.
Cummings paced Sendai with 24 points on 8-for-23 shooting.
“I didn’t really shoot as well as I wanted to shoot,” he admitted.
After dropping back-to-back games to Osaka, Cummings said, “I think we just need to fight and get as many wins as possible to be a good-looking unit (the rest of the season) and let our play speak for itself.”
In other words, fighting spirit.
Or as Cartwright said, “In the fourth quarter, I felt it would just come down to the team that just kept fighting, and we fought through it as a team and did a great job defensively, in particular on Cummings and (Maurice Hargrow).”
Scoring 33 points in the fourth quarter, Osaka held Sendai to 18 to wrap up the victory with an exclamation.
In other action Sunday, it was Niigata 89, Takamatsu 86; Kyoto 76, Shinshu 72; Hamamatsu Higashimikawa 64, Shiga 62; Ryukyu 84, Saitama 77; Oita 83, Iwate 80; Miyazaki 76, Akita 60; Chiba 87, Fukuoka 77; and Toyama 77, Shinshu 72.
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