Basketball / BJ-League

Big Bulls trample Firebonds to advance to Eastern Conference semis

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

An abundance of highlight reel plays raised the excitement level for the already ecstatic home fans.

But the second-seeded Iwate Big Bulls excelled in their execution of the fundamentals in a 95-71 triumph over the seventh-seeded Fukushima Firebonds in Game 2 of their bj-league Eastern Conference first-round playoff series at Iwate Prefectural Gymnasium on Sunday.

Iwate now shifts its focus to a home series against the Aomori Wat’s this weekend. (The Big Bulls won the season series 4-0.)

Fukushima, meanwhile, completed its inaugural season with a 21-33 record, including two playoff defeats.

The Firebonds trailed throughout the final three quarters.

Like on Saturday, the Big Bulls increased their intensity and productivity in the second quarter and steamrolled the visitors. They outscored the Firebonds 30-15 in Sunday’s second quarter to erase any doubts about who was in control.

The win was all but locked up when guard Masato Tsukino canned a straightaway 3-pointer with 7:18 left in the game, putting the hosts ahead 80-58. Lawrence Blackledge’s slam dunk with 6:05 left further fueled the home supporters, who cheered with thunderous applause on a day when the Big Bulls doled out 19 assists against six turnovers.

Wayne Arnold’s rainbow 3 triggered the same response moments later.

“The defense was great this weekend,” Arnold said after the game.

He described the Iwate offense as “in sync,” and it was, with few poor shot selections or bad decisions by the Big Bulls on the offensive end.

“There were a couple stretches where we didn’t execute . . . but we made up for it on defense,” Arnold stated.

Iwate coach Dai Oketani emphasized “team work” again and again in a post-game interview with reporters.

He said limiting opportunities for Fukushima guard Masaya Karimata, who earned the league’s 2014-15 Most Improved Player Award, to create for his teammates was key. Facing tenacious defense from all angles, Karimata didn’t register an assist on the afternoon, but scored 20 points, including 5-for-8 from beyond the 3-point arc.

“We played active defense,” Oketani said.

“Fukushima is a difficult team to face,” he added, “so we matched up with them with (our) aggressive play.”

Scootie Randall paced Iwate with 29 points on 10-for-13 shooting from the floor and 8-for-8 at the free-throw line, delivering an electrifying performance that validated his Best Five Team selection. The Temple University alum grabbed 11 rebounds and swatted two shots.

Blackledge added 18 points, 11 rebounds, three assists with two steals and two blocks, while Arnold came off the bench and scored 15 points in just under 20 minutes.

The Big Bulls came close to matching Saturday’s total of five players scoring in double figures, with Tsukino at nine and Abdullahi Kuso and Tsubasa Yonamine at eight apiece.

“We are at our best when we play team basketball,” Kuso said. “We don’t want to be one of those teams that lives and dies off one player.”

He added: “You’ve got to give credit to the coaching staff for scouting their strengths and weaknesses. . .

“After the game, coach said this was one of our best overall games all season, so all credit goes to the coaching staff.”

In an entertaining, well-played first quarter, a Blackledge layup in the final minute knotted the score at 19-19. It was the eighth tie of the quarter. The Tohoku rivals traded baskets throughout the 10 minutes.

Kuso converted a hook shot on Iwate’s next trip down the floor to make it 21-19, accounting for the final points of the opening period.

Fukushima was unable to maintain the same scoring pace the rest of the game, though.

A Randall 3-pointer put the Big Bulls ahead by five early in the second stanza, then Firebonds star Verdell Jones III, who had an 18-point, seven-assist outing, buried a shot beyond the arc, and it was a two-point game again.

Yonamine sank a jumper after a nifty sequence of passing by his teammates. Karimata answered with a nothing-but-net 3, cutting the lead to 26-25.

But the Big Bulls were just heating up on offense, getting good inside looks for Kuso and Randall, who converted back-to-back shots during a 14-0 spurt.

In addition, Iwate’s 3-point shots were falling like rain during a summer monsoon, too. At the same time, the hosts’ defense was challenging every passer and every shooter and causing fits for Fukushima.

After an Edward Morris deuce pulled the Firebonds within 35-31, Blackledge and Yonamine both flushed a pair of 3s in a rapid-fire sequence keyed by the right passes at the right time.

And after Yonamine’s second 3 of that outburst, Iwate’s lead skyrocketed to 49-31 with 53 seconds to go in the half.

Karimata stopped the run with a 3-ball of his own.

The Big Bulls walked off the court with confidence following a stellar second quarter and led 51-34 at the break.

Iwate chalked up 15 assists, led by Yonamine’s five, in the opening 20 minutes and zero turnovers. Randall and Blackledge both had 13 points, respectively in that time, and Karimata was the Firebonds’ top scorer before intermission with 11 points.

Facing a 17-point deficit entering the third quarter and must-win game to force a 10-minute tiebreaker later in the afternoon, aka Game 3, the Firebonds came out strong in the second half.

They slashed the lead to 55-43 before Iwate called a timeout at the 7:01 mark after a Karimata 3-pointer.

But the Big Bulls stayed composed and built their cushion back to 64-46 before an official timeout with 4:28 remaining in the quarter.

And with about 30 seconds left in the quarter, Randall’s spin-and-drive layup made it a 70-52 game.

Jones, who faced waves of defenders all game and made 6 of 21 shots, promptly answered with an inside bucket, and the Iwate advantage was 16 points after three quarters.

Randall, a constant thorn in the side of Fukushima defenders, lit up the scoreboard with 10 third-quarter points on 4-for-4 shooting. The Firebonds were unable to disrupt his rhythm or slow him down.

Fukushima coach Hiroki Fujita said, “We lost to a very good Iwate team.”

In a revealing comment, he also pointed out that he has learned by “watching the Iwate defense.”

This season, defense has carried the Big Bulls, according to Arnold, who added that “the team’s offense is starting to catch up with its defense.”

Morris scored 14 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, while Fukushima big man James Hughes had 12 points.

(1) Northern Happinets 117, (8) Crane Thunders 78

In Akita, the hosts put on a shooting clinic and ended Gunma’s season in the process.

The Northern Happinets (43-11) drained 16 of 28 3s and 29 of 41 from inside the arc. They advanced to face visiting Niigata in the East semifinals this week.

Sharpshooter Shigehiro Taguchi had a 22-point performance for Akita and Richard Roby stuffed the stat sheet with 21 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and five steals. Deshawn Stephens contributed 15 points and Yuto Otsuka 14 in the rout.

Carlos Dixon paced the Crane Thunders (19-35) with 27 points. Daniel Northern Jr. scored 12 and former NBA center Melvin Ely had nine points and six rebounds.

(6) Wat’s 69, (3) 89ers 64

In Sendai, Aomori made big plays on the perimeter and in the low post and held 89ers guard Kejuan Johnson, the 2014-15 regular-season MVP and scoring champion, to 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting.

Wat’s big men Gyno Pomare (21 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks) and Paul Williams (12 points, 12 boards) were a potent force against the 89ers.

Aomori out-rebounded the hosts 56-38.

Yuki Yamaguchi and Kenichi Takahashi each scored 10 points for Aomori (25-29), a second-season franchise.

Takehiko Shimura had 19 points and five steals for Sendai (37-17) and Wendell White scored 10 points.

(4) Albirex BB 81, (5) Grouses 66

In Niigata, Thomas Kennedy and Patrick Sullivan had 17 points apiece and Takamichi Fujiwara dished out six assists as coach Fujitaka Hiraoka’s squad eliminated Toyama.

Grouses star Masashi Joho missed the series with a right knee injury.

Joe Werner led Toyama (35-19) with 25 points and 10 rebounds, and Sam Willard had 24 points.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(1) Hannaryz 102, (8) Five Arrows 73

In Kyoto, the Hannaryz controlled the tempo and took a 20-point cushion into the third quarter in the series opener against Takamatsu.

Kyoto’s Kevin Kotzur had 24 points on 11-for-14 shooting and Reggie Warren scored 17 points. Ryan Forehan-Kelly added 16 points, Shun Watanuki 14 and David Palmer 11.

The Hannaryz made 60 percent of their 2-point shots.

Justin Watts paced the Five Arrows with 18 points and B.J. Puckett had 16.

Game 2 is on Monday.

(2) Golden Kings 92, (7) HeatDevils 68 — Game 2

Golden Kings 23, HeatDevils 18 — Game 3, tiebreaker

In Okinawa City, defending champion Ryukyu bounced back from a shock defeat on Saturday night and forced the mini-game tiebreaker to determine the series outcome.

The Golden Kings (44-11) advanced to play visiting Hamamastu in the West semifinals.

Defense fueled the Game 2 win for Ryukyu, which held Oita to 23-for-64 shooting. Ryuichi Kishimoto sank 6 of 9 3s in a 21-point effort.

In the 10-minute tiebreaker, the Golden Kings made 11 of 14 foul shots, including Draelon Burns’ 5 of 6 and Kibwe Trim’s 4 of 6. Burns was the hosts’ high scorer (seven points) in the win-or-go-home contest.

Demetri McCamey kept the HeatDevils (19-36) in the hunt in the tiebreaker with 10 points.

(3) Phoenix 76, (6) Susanoo Magic 61

In Iwata, Shizuoka Prefecture, Hamamatsu’s dynamic one-two punch of Mo Charlo and Olu Ashaolu sparked the club to a convincing series-closing victory over Shimane.

Charlo provided 22 points and 13 rebounds for the Phoenix (44-10), with Ashaolu finishing with 18 and 11.

For the Susanoo Magic (22-32), post player Bingo Merriex had 17 points and 14 boards. Wesley Witherspoon scored 13 points and Jun Abe had 11.

(4) Lakestars 93, (5) Evessa 68

In Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, the Lakestars capitalized on their frequent trips to the free-throw line and routed Osaka to complete a series sweep.

Shiga made 22 of 27 foul shots. The Evessa were 4-for-6.

Jeff Parmer led the Lakestars (36-18) with 20 points with 11 rebounds. Chris Holm (12 points, 10 boards) also notched a double-double for the winners. Terrance Woodbury had an 18-point afternoon.

Shota Konno and Takuya Soma each scored 18 points for the Evessa (28-26), and Gary Hamilton chipped in with 14 points and 14 rebounds.