Neither team has a shot at making the playoffs. Neither team will finish anywhere near .500. But both teams personify the spirited competitor who happens to be their head coach, former players Ryan Blackwell of the Gunma Crane Thunders and Tracy Williams of the Saitama Broncos.

On Sunday, Williams, born 12 years before his coaching counterpart, had his team in sync for longer stretches than his opponent.
The Broncos (13-33) also had a human highlight reel named John “Helicopter” Humphrey in the lineup. That was worth 34 points, 19 rebounds, two assists, a block, nonstop hustle and a competitive drive that ignited his team to a 103-91 victory to complete a series sweep in this sleepy town, which according to Wikipedia had a population of around 53,000 in 2006.

Perhaps it was only fitting that Saitama scored 35 points — Humphrey’s longtime jersey number — in the decisive fourth quarter.

When it was over, Williams was upbeat and eloquent in his postgame session with reporters.

He began by saying, “Another good win for the Broncos organization. I’m just proud of my guys, coming off last week (getting swept by a combined three points against the Oita HeatDevils) and responding with two wins, it just shows how much we’ve grown as a basketball team.

“I’ve said if the team that we were at the beginning of the first half of the season, we’re not that same team no more. We’ve learned, we’ve gotten better, we’ve grown, not only just as a team but individually. Guys are just believing in themselves.”

Evidence of that was seen here, when defensive-minded forward Masahide Haraguchi became one of the focal points on offense. He had 28 points (6-for-11 3s-pointers) on Saturday, followed by a 15-point effort (and four big 3s) on Sunday.

That quiet confidence, that self-believe, is a message that Williams now believes is paying dividends for his players.

And, he said, “That’s all I really wanted them to do in the beginning … to believe in their ability like I did.”

Looking at the game’s final 10 minutes, Williams called it “the best part for me, because in the past if we had a lead we might hold it, but we never extended it…”

Humphrey missed 12 games earlier this season with an ailing back, but has regained his explosiveness off the dribble and moved up and down the court with bursts of speed in the series finale.

“I’m going to stop saying John Humphrey is not 100 percent,” Williams declared. “The doctors and the medical people say he’s not 100 percent, but when you 34 (points) and 19 (rebounds), I’m going to call you 100 percent on that. As a guard to get 34 and 19 … again, I think he’s the best basketball player in this league. (He’s) been hurt all year and to come out and give that type of performance is just awesome.”

In an effective game plan that worked Saturday and Sunday, the Broncos protected the basket and played tough interior zone defense, forcing Gunma (12-34) to seek scoring options from the outside. It also showcased the fact the Crane Thunders needed more scoring threats from the low post. (The Crane Thunders shot a whopping 105 3-pointers in the two-game series, including 48 on Sunday.)

Jermaine Dixon, who led Gunma with 29 points on Sunday, had 18 of those from beyond the arc. Which was fine with Williams.

“I just kept telling my team, ‘If he scores, I don’t care how many points he scores from the outside, just don’t let him score in the paint.’ I’ve been in basketball now for almost 40 years. You keep people out of the paint, you can beat anybody on the planet Earth. … Points in the paint, that’s what kills you. Outside shooting is fool’s gold — it comes, it goes.”

Regarding that strategy, Williams said, “I want them to think that’s the only way they can score.”

Gunma coach Ryan Blackwell acknowledged his team took a large number of 3-point shots, but pointed out, “If we make a few more of those, we win the game. It’s just the difference of us not making plays when we needed to.”

He added: “When you make them, yeah, it’s good. It’s just they were there, they were open (shots), the way they played the zone they just collapsed the middle. … I told our guys it’s OK to shoot it, but you have to mix it up and attack the middle. We didn’t do enough of going inside, getting the ball inside a little bit more and then going outside.”

Humphrey, on the other hand, was all smiles after the game. “We worked hard in practice and we got a good sweep this weekend,” he said. “It’s always great to get a sweep,” he added, emphasizing the word “always” in his comments to reporters.

Describing the way he played only moments after the game, Humphrey had this to say: “Well, I knew that coach would let me know coming into this weekend that they are probably going to double team me and a lot of focus would be on me, so I have to do other things to help this team. The best thing is rebound and try to outlet it to my guys to go. So I made an effort to try to clean up all the loose balls and rebounds this weekend.

“It just so happens a few of them came my way,” he said with a smile.

* * *

Streak is over: The Osaka Evessa’s 10-game winning streak ended on Sunday. Rookie guard Yuki Togashi, who attended Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Maryland, where NBA star Kevin Durant also went, was 6-for-9 on 3-pointers and poured in a game-high 26 points with six assists and two steals as the Akita Northern Happinets defeated the host Evessa 81-74 in Kishiwada, Osaka Prefecture.

After the loss, Evessa coach Bill Cartwright said, “I give credit to (the Happinets), because they came back and played hard. We had a couple of opportunities in the last (minutes), but we couldn’t catch them.”

Akita improved to 23-23, identical record as the Chiba Jets, their Eastern Conference rival who are defecting to the re-launched JBL (National Basketball League) after the season.

Dion Harris, whose alma mater Michigan plays in the NCAA tournament championship game on Monday against Louisville, added 18 points for the Happinets, as well as nine rebounds and four assists. Mike Anderson made six blocks for the victors.

Evessa big man Rick Rickert sat out the game with an ankle injury. Shun Watanuki scored 16 points, Dwayne Lathan and Nathan Walkup had 14 apiece and Shota Konno and Mike Bell both had 13. Bell grabbed a team-high 16 rebounds for Osaka (20-26).

The Evessa had a 2-16 start to the season and went through two head coaches — Zoran Kreckovic and Takao Furuya — before Cartwright took over on Jan. 21, when the team was 5-19. Amazingly, the team can still finish with a .500 record by winning its final six games. They’ll face the red-hot Oita HeatDevils at home next weekend, followed by a road series against the Niigata Albirex BB and a April 27-28 series against the Ryukyu Golden Kings, their archrival.

“The main factor in the Sunday game was Rick could not play,” Cartwright said. “He twisted his ankle the game prior and we just did not step up.

“We had always been the more aggressive team, but not Sunday. It’s too bad for the loss. Our guys have been working hard.”

Three-way battle in the East: The Niigata Albirex BB, Yokohama B-Corsairs and Toyama Grouses all have 31-15 records.

Niigata is 16-6 at home and 15-9 on the road. Yokohama and Toyama are both 16-8 in home contests and 15-7 in away games.

The Grouses had losing records in each of their previous six seasons, going 86-198 in that span.

First-year bench boss Bob Nash has built on the successful foundation put in place by ex-coach Kazuaki Shimoji, who stepped down after last season due to health issues after leading the Grouses to a team-best 25-27 campaign.

Led by veterans Ira Brown, Angel Garcia, Brandon Cole, Takeshi Mito, Masashi Joho, among others, the Grouses have rattled off five straight wins and gone 8-2 in their past 10 games. What’s more, in their previous 10 games, they went 7-3, a strong stretch that has positioned the Eastern Conference squad for a potential deep run into the playoffs.

Nash, a former NBA player and University of Hawaii head coach, remains humble as he looks ahead to the rest of the season.

“We are just a country team that is overachieving,” Nash told The Japan Times on Monday. “There is still a lot of basket to be played, so as a team we are only concerned about our next game. We can’t look down the road and start thinking about the playoffs.

“We play one game at a time and we will see if it was good enough in the end. I love my players for their professionalism, I’m really enjoying coaching them. No head cases, true professionals, which is rare in this self-serving world.”

Weekend flashback: With 10 series finales on the docket, fans got a chance to see all but one of the league’s teams, including the following Sunday contests.

*In Chiba, Toyama scored 50 second-half points to secure a 90-78 win over the host Jets and complete a series sweep.

Takeshi Mito, one of the league’s underrated standout guards, scored a team-high 23 points for Toyama on 8-for-10 shooting from the field and handed out four assists. Jeremy Jacob poured in 22 points and also was nearly unstoppable on offense, converting 10 of 13 shots while raking in eight rebounds. Ira Brown and Angel Garcia had 16 and 12 points, respectively. Brown was 8-for-11 from the field.

Notice a pattern here? Well, the Grouses were 30-for-49 from inside the arc; they made 6 of 20 3-point shots.

All-Star guard Masashi Joho dished out a team-best seven assists and Tatsunori Fujie and Garcia both passed out five at Chiba Port Arena.

Chiba fell to 23-23. The Jets — along with the aforementioned Happinets — occupy the final two playoff spots in the East. For Chiba and the Sendai 89ers (18-28), both teams have six games remaining in the regular season.

Marquise Gray paced the Jets with 26 points and 13 rebounds and D’Andre Bell scored 19. Hiroki Sato had 15 points. Joe Werner and Marquin Chandler, frontcourt stalwarts, were sidelined with injuries. Werner has missed four straight contests and Chandler has been out of the lineup for two games.

*In Zentsuji, Kagawa Prefecture, the Yokohama B-Corsairs bounced back from a series-opening loss, routing the host Takamatsu Five Arrows 88-71.

Draelon Burns scored 18 points and Thomas Kennedy and Faye Pape Mour had 16 apiece, the latter grabbing a team-high 12 rebounds. Kennedy, Seiji Kono and Kenji Yamada went a combined 6-for-6 on 3s, each guy making both of his attempts. Kono scored 12 points and Yamada had 11.

Yokohama made 21 of 28 free throws; Takamatsu was 8-for-14. The Five Arrows were whistled for 22 personal fouls and the B-Corsairs for 15.

Dexter Lyons topped the scoring charts for Takamatsu (19-29) with 25 points on 10-for-19 shooting. Brandon Penn chipped in with 16 points and Daisuke Tamura, who’s averaging 14.7 points over the past three games, scored 12.

B-Corsairs coach Reggie Geary considers Sunday’s win a positive experience for the team to build off.

“It was good to get the win yesterday,” Geary told The Japan Times on Monday, “in the third and fourth quarter we looked more like the team I remember. Every since Draelon was injured (in late February), we’ve been hard pressed to regain the quality of play we’ve had for most of the season. Draelon’s form is returning, the team is tougher after a tough stretch of games, and we’re working hard to regain our stride at just the right time.”

And what does Geary think of the battle for the top spot in the East?

“From a fan standpoint, to have three teams tied at the top going into the final weeks will lead to some exciting, intense playoff-like matchups,” he said. “The team that comes out of this on top will be ready in my opinion to make serious run on Ariake.”

*In Niigata, Atsuya Ota, a Japan national team center, scored 18 points and pulled down seven rebounds, Shinnosuke Oishi scored 17 points and Kevin Galloway added 15 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists and four steals as the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix salvaged a series split by beating the Albirex 79-72.

It was only the Phoenix’s third victory over the past 10 games.

Despite their recent struggles, Hamamatsu (26-20) is the West’s fifth-place squad after the weekend. Tomoya “Coach Crusher” Higashino is 3-5 at the helm since replacing Ryuji Kawai as head coach on Feb. 28. Without former MVP Wendell White (foot fracture) in the lineup since Feb. 24, Hamamatsu has been working to get adjusted to Higashino’s system despite missing one of the league’s strongest and most intelligent frontcourt stars.

Sunday’s win, though, was Ota’s second big game in a row. He made 8 of 9 shots from the field a day after scoring 17 and going 7-for-11 from inside the arc (he attempted one 3-pointer that missed; he’s now 0-for-4 from long range this season). And perhaps Ota’s confidence is rising, too. He had one of the worst games of his career on March 20 against the host Yokohama B-Corsairs, finishing 0-for-11 from the field in a dismal three-point outing that included three airballs.

Nile Murry had 20 points for Niigata on an 8-for-21 shooting afternoon and six turnovers along with five assists. Chris Holm supplied 13 points and 13 rebounds, Kimitake Sato had 13 points and Shuhei Komatsu 11.

*In Oita, the HeatDevils overpowered the lowly Miyazaki Shining Suns in the second half en route to an 82-72 triumph, which gave coach Yukinori Suzuki’s club its seventh straight win.

Oita was 8-2 to start the season, then 9-4 before the Kyushu-based franchise began unloading players after the organization’s financial woes came to light. After a long nosedive toward the bottom of the standings, the HeatDevils (20-28) have been playing strong basketball over the past several weeks.

P.J. Alawoya (15 points, 12 rebounds) was one of six Oita players with double-digit scoring games on Sunday. The others: Thomas Granado (12), Taishiro Shimizu (12), Manabu Umemiya (11; the Chiba Prefecture native has been playing the most consistent ball of his pro career in recent games) and Osaka castaway Andre Coimbra (10).

For Miyazaki (9-39), Abdullahi Kuso had 24 points and 16 rebounds.

*In Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, coach Dai Oketani’s Iwate Big Bulls improved to 29-17 by beating the host Susanoo Magic 86-73.

With the loss, Shimane (31-17) remains locked into a battle with Fukuoka for second in the West. (The top two teams in each conference will get an automatic bye into the playoff’s conference semifinal round.)

Reggie Okosa, who scored 27 points and collected 17 rebounds, was Iwate’s top player on the afternoon. Carlos Dixon had 21 points and nine rebounds, Kenichi Takahashi sank 5 of 7 3s in a 19-point effort and Dillion Sneed added 10 points and eight rebounds for the Big Bulls (29-17 overall, 15-7 on the road).

Michael Parker had 31 points and 12 rebounds for Shimane, which shot 28-for-69 from the field a day after beating Fukuoka.

*In Fukuoka, the Ryukyu Golden Kings, missing five-time champion Jeff Newton as he recovers from knee surgery, played a smart, aggressive game, defeating the Rizing 76-68 to wrap up another Western Conference regular-season title.

Ryukyu improved to a league-best 36-10, including 15-7 away from Okinawa. The defending champion Golden Kings won their first conference crown in 2008-09 en route to the franchise’s first title. They have now won three straight conference titles.

Second-year guard Morihisa Yamauchi, a rising star, knocked down all three of his 3-balls in the series finale, went 3-for-6 from inside the arc, and canned all four free throws for a 19-point effort, adding three assists and three steals for the Kings. Terrance Woodbury went 9-for-10 at the charity stripe and finished with 17 points. Dzaflo Larkai scored 13 points and Narito Namizato had an 11-point, seven-assist, five-rebound, three-steal outing, while Anthony McHenry contributed 11 points and 16 boards.

Reggie Warren led Fukuoka (31-17), which won the series opener, with 20 points and 19 rebounds and Josh Peppers scored 19 points. The Rizing missed 16 of 20 3s and turned the ball over 16 times.

*In Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture, the Lakestars buried 10 of 20 3-point shots, led by Jumpei Nakama’s 5-for-6 showing, in a 94-85 triumph over the Sendai 89ers.

Big man Dionisio Gomez had 24 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists and Yutaka Yokoe dished out eight assists as Shiga (28-18) employed an efficient inside-outside offensive strategy. Nakama scored a season-high 18 points. Wayne Arnold poured in 21 and made 9 of 12 shots, while Takamichi Fujiwara had 16 points and Daiki Terashita scored nine.

Takuya Komoda was the top scorer for the 89ers with 18 and T.J. Cummings had 17 and 10 boards. Sam Willard scored 12 points and hauled in 16 rebounds.

*In Koganei, Tokyo, Jonathan Jones, Ricky Woods and Cohey Aoki provided the offensive spark to carry the expansion Cinq Reves to an 82-80 win over the Kyoto Hannaryz, giving coach Motofumi Aoki’s club a series split.

Tokyo (16-30) sits in ninth place in the 11-team Eastern Conference. Jones had 23 points, one more than Woods. They were a combined 20-for-41 from inside the arc, taking all but 15 of the team’s 2-point shots. Aoki, the league’s lone seven-time All-Star, had 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting, with three key 3s on the afternoon.

Marcus Cousin paced Kyoto (25-21) with 21 points and 17 rebounds. The Hannaryz had 20 turnovers in the losss; in a six-point win on Saturday, they had only 10.

HeatDevils future: The league office announced on Monday that Oita, which entered the league in 2005 as one of six teams, will field a team next season, ending speculation — at least for now — that the franchise would fold. The HeatDevils, operated by the league office for several months, have been reorganized after going bankrupt under previous management.

Established stars Matt Lottich, Taj Finger, Wendell White, Cyrus Tate, Kazuya “J.” Hatano and Naoto Takushi all left the team as payroll was reportedly slashed by up to 70 percent. Lower-priced imports were brought in to bolster the roster.

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