Toyama, Akita advance to Final Four for first time; Ryukyu, Kyoto also earn spots


Staff Writer

Maybe 13 is a lucky number after all.

The Toyama Grouses rolled to their 13th consecutive victory on Sunday afternoon, earning a trip to the bj-league’s Final Four for the first time in franchise history.

Coach Bob Nash’s club defeated the Niigata Albirex BB 85-68 in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series in Toyama.

For the Grouses, Sam Willard scored a game-high 21 points and also led all players with 12 rebounds. The University of the Pacific alum was 9-for-12 on 2-point shots, adding two assists, two steals and two blocks. Frontcourt mate Ira Brown also posted a double-double, finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Toyama, which joined the league in 2006, played a smart, physical game and out-rebounded the visitors 50-41.

The Grouses also went to the free-throw line for 39 shots (29 makes). Niigata was 8-for-16 at the charity stripe.

Top-seeded Toyama (44-10), which has won 17 of its last 18 games, will face the third-seeded Akita Northern Happinets in the Eastern Conference final on May 24 at Ariake Colosseum.

Niigata led 41-40 at halftime. The Grouses outscored the Albirex 45-27 in the final two quarters.

Regular-season MVP Masashi Joho had 18 points and five assists for Toyama. Takeshi Mito poured in 13 points and Tatsunori Fujie chipped in with six points.

Nile Murry paced the fifth-seeded Albirex (33-24) with 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Thomas Kennedy and Patrick Sullivan each had 14 points and Kimitake Sato scored 12 points. Shuhei Komatsu finished with six points.

Northern Happinets 82, Big Bulls 59

In Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, Yuki Togashi and Ruben Boykin scored 22 and 21 points, respectively, as Akita routed the Big Bulls and earned a series sweep.

Both Happinets players were 4-for-8 from 3-point range. Togashi dished out seven assists.

Big man Chas McFarland had 16 points and eight rebounds for third-seeded Akita (42-12), which will make its first Final Four appearance in two weeks. The fourth-year franchise shot 12-for-28 from beyond the arc and 18-for-33 from 2-point range.

Boykin, a Northern Arizona University alum, pulled down nine rebounds, and the visitors had 48 boards and held Iwate to 36.

Happinets guard Shigehiro Taguchi also had the hot hand from 3-point land, knocking down 3 of 5 shots in an 11-point effort. He also collected two steals.

For second-seeded Iwate, which had won 12 straight games entering the series, Scootie Randall was the high scorer with 20 points on 9-for-21 shooting. Gyno Pomare added 13 points and Lawrence Blackledge had 12 on 5-for-15 shooting.

Blackledge led the Big Bulls (40-14) with nine rebounds and five assists.

Iwate missed 16 of its 20 3-point attempts.

Akita took a 42-34 lead into halftime. Iwate trailed 62-52 after three quarters.

The Happinets outscored the hosts 20-7 in the fourth.

“All in all, Akita was better than us this weekend and they deserve to go to Ariake,” Blackledge told The Japan Times. “I’m proud of my teammates and my coaching staff. We had a great season regardless if we won the championship or not. One of the toughest seasons I have seen in the bj-league since I’ve been playing here. Four teams with at least 40 wins is impressive.”

Akita sixth man Richard Roby, who scored 24 points in Game 1, struggled to knock down shots. He was 2-for-11 and finished with four points, but chipped in with six rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal.

“(I am) proud of our performance winning two hard games on the road. Now we need to make our mission complete,” Roby told The Japan Times after the series-clinching victory.

When it was over, Iwate bench boss Dai Oketani commended his opponent for its strong performance.

“I just want to say Akita deserves to go to Ariake,” Oketani told this newspaper after the game. “They are one of the toughest teams in the bj-league. They have been built as a strong team each season. Now they are made to go to Ariake for the first time. I want to say congratulations (to) Akita.”

Blackledge noted that the Big Bulls had to cope with Josh Peppers’ hamstring injury in the series. He was limited to six total points in the two-game series and played only 22 combined minutes over the weekend. He averaged 12.9 points per game this season.

“But we had enough players to play so we had to go out and play with out him,” Blackledge stated.

“Man, Akita is a tough team,” he added. “They have so many weapons on their team that it is impossible to stop all of them. The first game was a dogfight and they beat us by three. I think their match-up zone caught us off guard.

“Game 2 they were too much for us. Sometimes you have to take your hat off to the other team and they whooped up. Togashi imposed his will on the game like I have never seen before in the bj-league. He is special. Boykin was knocking down his shots and just being the tough All-Star that he is. ”

He added: “I think we just ran out of gas. Only scoring (seven) points in the fourth quarter, (you) can’t beat anybody with that performance.”

Golden Kings 72, Phoenix 55

In Okinawa City, Draelon Burns scored 27 points, Ryuichi Kishimoto buried five 3s in a 17-point effort and Kibwe Trim had 15 points and 14 rebounds as Ryukyu trounced Hamamatsu Higashimikawa in Game 2 of their conference semifinal series.

The top-seeded Golden Kings (45-9) went 8-0 against the Phoenix this season. Now, they are returning to the Final Four after a one-season absence. It will be the seventh-year franchise’s fifth trip to Ariake Colosseum, first under Tsutomu Isa, the 2013-14 bj-league Coach of the Year.

Burns made 8 of 10 shots from inside the arc and was 5-for-5 at the line. He led all players with four steals and dished out three assists.

Golden Kings floor leader Anthony McHenry supplied seven points, nine boards, two steals and two assists, while Shigeyuki Kinjo poured in six points.

Seven Ryukyu players had zero points on the afternoon, but the aforementioned quintet’s scoring production was more than enough.

The Kings led 18-7 after one quarter and 36-15 at halftime. Defensively, they disrupted the visitors’ offensive rhythm, holding them to four assists for the entire game.

The fourth-seeded Phoenix (29-28) shot 6-for-26 from 3-point range and 11-for-29 from inside the arc. Jermaine Dixon had a team-high 23 points and Ray Nixon scored 12 with nine rebounds. Cyrus Tate added nine points and Atsuya Ota scored six.

Hannaryz 97, Lakestars 73 (Game 2)
Hannaryz 25, Lakestars 15 (Game 3, tiebreaker)

In Kyoto, the Hannaryz booked a spot in the Final Four for a third consecutive season, winning Game 2 and the mini-game tiebreaker to eliminate Shiga.

The tiebreaker, a 10-minute, sink-or-swim format, turned into a free-throw shooting exhibit for second-seeded Kyoto.

Coach Honoo Hamaguchi’s second-seeded team went 16-for-22 at the charity stripe in Game 3. The Lakestars were 3-for-5, and whistled for 15 fouls. On the other hand, Kyoto was called for five fouls.

Kyoto’s Yu Okada, who scored eight points in Game 3, was 5-for-6 at the line. Six teammates attempted two or more foul shots in the mini-game. Takuya Komoda and Shun Watanuki each scored four points in the tiebreaker and Joe Werner had three.

Brandon Fields led third-seeded Shiga (28-27) with 10 points. Guard Jumpei Nakama, who has competed in the bj-league since its inception in 2005, fouled out after 2:58 of playing time in Game 3 in the final game of his career.

In Game 2, Kyoto (36-19) raked in 54 rebounds, including 25 offensive boards, and held Shiga to 40.

Okada scored 23 points on 9-for-16 shooting to lead all players. Four Hannaryz teammates also had double-digit point totals in a must-win game: Joe Werner (15 points, nine rebounds), Hayato Kantake (season-high 14 points, 4-for-4 on 3s), David Palmer (12 points, eight rebounds, three assists) and Chris Holm (11 points, 11 rebounds). Watanuki added nine points and Edwin Ubiles had eight.

For Shiga, Fields had 16 points and five assists. Dionisio Gomez and Marshall Brown both added 13 points, with Nakama scoring eight points in the last regulation-length game of his pro career.