The final two possessions determined the outcome, creating a thrilling finish to the bj-league’s 10th Final Four.
Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix power forward Olu Ashaolu’s driving layup with 3.1 seconds remaining shattered a tie. The Akita Northern then Happinets had one last sequence to go for the tie or the win.
Following a timeout, the ball wound up in Richard Roby’s hands as the clock was ticking down to the last second. He fired a long jumper, just inside the 3-point arc, that was off the mark.
That sequence clinched the Phoenix’s 71-69 championship victory over the Northern Happinets at Ariake Colosseum before an announced crowd of 10,026 spectators.
A beaming Hamamatsu bench boss Tomoya “Coach Crusher” Higashino called it “excellent basketball” after receiving the championship trophy from bj-league commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi.
The Phoenix became the league’s third franchise to capture three titles, the first since back-to-back crowns in 2010 and 2011 under Kazuo Nakamura. (The Osaka Evessa claimed three straight titles, starting with the league’s inaugural championship in the 2005-06 season, while the Ryukyu Golden Kings won it all in 2009, 2012 and last season.)
It was a riveting fourth quarter. The Phoenix (47-11 overall), the Western Conference No. 3 seed, faced a 50-44 deficit entering the 10-minute period, and the poised veteran team, praised and described by Higashino as “patient,” were ready for the challenge.
The powerhouse teams traded baskets, sending the electric crowd into alternating loud cheers. In the quarter, the teams knotted the score at 54-54, 60-60, 63-63, 67-67 and 69-69, setting the stage for the dramatic finish.
After the confetti rained throughout the arena, after the team trophy was secured by the Phoenix and after the high-fives and hugs were shared by players, teammates and staff, Higashino put the victory in its proper perspective.
It’s been a “tough road” to the title, according to the veteran coach, who just completed his second full season at the helm. There were playoff series victories over the Shimane Susanoo Magic, then the Golden Kings and then Saturday’s West final win over the Shiga Lakestars.
“I am truly glad,” he said, reflecting on the title. “This was a very tough game.”
Hamamatsu ended the season with eight straight victories and 13 of 14 overall.
Phoenix guard Nile Murry, a key offseason acquisition, summed up the title quest’s successful conclusion this way: “It was a team effort. As a team we pulled off the win.”
Ashaolu, a University of Oregon alum, finished with a team-high 22 points on 8-for-10 shooting. He had two steals and two blocks to wrap up his debut season in Japan. Murry scored 16 points and Mo Charlo, another first-year Hamamatsu standout, added 14 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, none bigger than his dish to Ashaolu for the winning score.
Hamamatsu was strong inside on offense, working the ball around to keep the defense on its toes. Higashino’s club chalked up 22 assists against eight turnovers and shot 20-for-35 from inside the arc (57.1 percent).
Vital to the victory was the Phoenix’s fourth-quarter poise, when they shot 11-for-20 from the floor, and nine of 11 baskets were triggered by an assist.
After those statistics were etched in the 2014-15 season record book, Hamamatsu guard Shinnosuke Oishi declared the season-ending triumph is “a great feeling.”
Akita’s Deshawn Stephens had a tremendous game and caused defensive fits all 40 minutes for the Phoenix. He led all players with 30 points on 12-for-13 shooting from the field and grabbed 10 rebounds. Roby added 18 points and eight rebounds. Yuto Otsuka and Travon Bryant scored seven and six points, respectively in defeat.
First-year Happinets coach Makoto Hasegawa said the 25-year-old Stephens’ performance level will only continues to “rise and rise.” He insisted Stephens has NBA-level talent.
Stephens said the game came down to a few critical turnovers and missed free throws for Akita (46-13 overall).
“We played great, we played together,” Stephens said. “We played as a team. . . . We just have to turn this into a positive (for the future).”
The Happinets, however, couldn’t hit the 3-point shot, a key staple of their high-powered offense, which led the league in scoring (89.3 points per game) this season. They shot a dreadful 1-for-20 from long range on Sunday. What’s more, perimeter marksman Shigehiro Taguchi, who had 15 points and 4-for-7 3-point shooting in Saturday’s East final triumph over Iwate, was 0-for-13 from the field, including 0-for-8 on 3s.
Credit Murry and Jermaine Green for shouldering the bulk of the defensive assignment to keep Taguchi, whose 131 3s led his team during the regular season, in check. That they did.
Taguchi had tearful eyes during a post-game interview with reporters. He spoke in slow, measured tones.
The Phoenix fell to the eventual champion Golden Kings last season. They avenged that loss earlier this month to reach Ariake for the first time since 2012.
Hamamatsu center Atsuya Ota, a member of the Japan national team, told reporters last season’s lost provided motivation for this season’s team.
Stephens energized the Eastern Conference title-game representative with 14 second-quarter points on 6-for-7 shooting. He dominated inside the paint and used his leaping ability and relentless energy to deliver layups, putbacks and shots close to the basket.
Akita’s offense started to pick up as Stephens began putting his stamp on the game. For instance, the San Diego State product’s baseline drive and layup put the Happinets in front 21-15 with 6:06 before intermission. After Hamamatsu cut the lead to four, Roby sank a nifty turn-around jumper near the midway point of the quarter, and there were signs of life for the Akita offense.
Moments later, Travon Bryant’s post-up basket increased the East’s top-seeded squad’s lead to 27-20.
An Otsuka baseline 3 and a Roby inside hoop gave the Happinets their biggest lead of the half, 33-22 before Masahiro Oguchi sank a 3 to cut the margin to eight as the half wound down, and the Phoenix trailed 33-25 at halftime.
Along with Stephens, Roby was the only other player with double-digit scoring totals (10 points) in the opening half.
Hamamatsu’s 3-point shooting woes were a factor in the offense’s woes in the first half. The Phoenix were 1 of 17 from beyond the arc, including Charlo’s 0-for-5 and Murry’s 0-for-4.
Hamamatsu led 12-10 entering the second quarter.
The opening quarter was a defensive struggle with both teams getting a feel for their opponent. Only Roby had more than one field goal in the period, and he was 3-for-3 on 2-point attempts in the quarter.
First-quarter numbers: Akita shot 4-for-20 from the field; Hamamatsu was 4 of 7 from long range but 0 of 7 from inside the arc, leading to Stephens’ emergence as the offensive star of the second stanza.
In the third-place game, the Shiga Lakestars defeated the Iwate Big Bulls 82-75.
The Lakestars’ lights-out shooting in the opening quarter gave them a 35-15 advantage after 10 minutes. Shiga made 10 of 16 shots from the floor in that time, including Terrance Woodbury’s 12-point outburst.
“In the beginning of the game, we came out very flat,” Iwate forward Lawrence “Trend” Blackledge said.
Big Bulls star Scootie Randall agreed.
On defense, “I think we made a lot of mistakes and they took advantage,” said Randall, who scored a team-high 17 points.
Despite Iwate’s early miscues and a spirited comeback, coach Dai Oketani’s club came up short and ended the season with back-to-back losses.
“We truly gave our all in the second half,” was the way Oketani described the team’s effort.
The Lakestars (39-29 overall) held a 52-29 advantage after two quarters and 69-52 entering the final stanza.
Bridging the third and fourth quarter’s Iwate embarked on a 16-0 spurt to close the gap to 69-69 on a Blackledge scoop shot.
Terrance Woodbury pushed the lead back to 13 (75-62) on a strong move inside with 5:25 left in the game
By then, though, Wayne Arnold was heating up. He nailed a reverse layup, a leaner and a 3-pointer on back-to-back-to-back possession, and Iwate fans were cheering wildly as the deficit was sliced to 75-70 with 3:09 to play in the quarter. And a Blackledge hoop kept Iwate within five, 77-72, with about 2:25 left.
Nineteen seconds later, a Jeff Parmer three-point play gave Shiga a bit of breathing room, and Iwate’s comeback drive slowed down.
With regret in his voice, Oketani pointed to his team grabbing momentum “one, two, three times,” but losing it.
Arnold scored 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter to spark Iwate’s comeback hopes, while Randall poured in eight points in the final stanza.
Shiga capitalized on Iwate’s aggressive defense and earned repeated trips to the free-throw line, where it converted 26 of 31 shots. Conversely, the Big Bulls were 7-for-12 at the charity stripe.
Shiga coach Koto Toyama said his team played aggressively and set the tone for the game. He added that his team’s defense focused on putting pressure on Blackledge and Randall, who are among the league’s elite teammate duos.
Woodbury, a University of Georgia product, paced the Lakestars with 20 points and Yu Okada poured in 17 points with three steals. Parmer had 16 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks, with Yutaka Yokoe and Ray Nixon finishing with nine points.
After the game, Nixon admitted the victory over Iwate gave the club a positive momentum boost as the offseason begins.
“It’s pure motivation,” the veteran forward said. “Any guy that’s real competitors they are going to think about it over the summer. It’s going to motivate them to work harder, work on the little things they need to do to get better. It’s just going to fuel the fire to come back next year stronger.”
Before the Final Four, Shiga guard Shinya Ogawa announced he would retire after the season. He came off the bench and had two points, three rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals in 15:44 of court time
Ogawa made his bj-league debut in 2007 for the Toyama Grouses and saw action in 34 games that season. Then he joined Shiga for its inaugural season and played the next seven campaigns for the team whose home faces beautiful Lake Biwa.
The 31-year-old Lakestars captain, who was born in Shiga Prefecture, entered the game for the final time with 36.5 seconds left, replacing guard Yokoe.
After Blackledge’s layup accounted for the game’s final points, Ogawa dribbled out the clock. His teammates embraced him after the final buzzer sounded.
The Lakestars faithful showered their hero with warm chants of “Shinya, Shinya, Shinya.”
Then the Shiga players and coaching staff gave Ogawa a traditional doage (victory toss).
In fact, the Lakestars dedicated their game to their retiring leader.
What was their slogan for the game?
“All for Shinya.”
Blackledge, meanwhile, focused on the positive strives the Big Bulls (45-13 overall) made this season, including their second-straight 40-win campaign.
“We still had a great season, even though we didn’t get the championship,” Blackledge told reporters after contributing 12 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks for Iwate.
“It’s just a great experience,” he said, referring to the team’s first-ever Final Four trip in its fourth season.
The team, he said, know has the knowledge of “how hard you have to play and how smart you have to play” here.
The mission for 2015-16?
“Learn from it (Final Four losses this weekend) . . . and come back next here year,” Blackledge said.
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