Despite the numerous titles they’ve won — no, precisely because they’ve won so many and know how sweet it is — anything short of a championship is unacceptable for the Aisin SeaHorses.
The Aichi Prefecture club captured its first Emperor’s Cup in five years with an 89-73 win over the Link Tochigi Brex in the men’s final of the 91st All-Japan Basketball Championship at Yoyogi National Gymnasium on Monday.
Center J.R. Sakuragi racked up 26 points, nine rebounds and six assists to guide Aisin to its ninth All-Japan title.
Shooter Kosuke Kanamaru scored 19 points, while American big man Gavin Edwards and youngster Makoto Hiejima chipped in with 18 and 12 points, respectively, for the SeaHorses.
“We really wanted to win this All-Japan tournament this time,” Aisin head coach Kimikazu Suzuki said after the game. “We’d practiced hard for this Emperor’s Cup.”
The game was tight in the first half but Aisin came through in the second half, capitalizing on its signature defense, which is the second best in the ongoing NBL regular season (72.0 points per game).
“We knew how Link Tochigi would play, and tried not to be passive against them,” Kanamaru said after the game. “We tried to play our own brand of ball and defense for the entire 40 minutes, and I think we were able to do it. That’s the biggest reason why we won the game.”
Shooters Hironori Watanabe and Takatoshi Furukawa led the team with 24 and 21 points, respectively. Watanabe sank five 3-point shots. American inside player Ryan Rossiter had a double-double with 15 points and 15 rebounds for Link Tochigi, which was making its first All-Japan final appearance.
The Brex have been the best offensive team in the NBL, averaging 82.1 points. They are currently in first place with a 19-4 record, but were held to 29 points in the second half.
Suzuki added that it was a special championship for the team compared to its past titles, because the players were so united.
“We’ve won it nine times,” Suzuki said. “But this is the happiest championship for me.”
All the SeaHorses players played in red shoes, symbolizing their determination to win the Emperor’s Cup throughout this tourney.
Having won the tournament, the SeaHorses have reminded basketball fans that they are the dominant Japanese club in the 21st century. They have won nine All-Japan titles in the last 15 years and six domestic league championships in the same period.
Sakuragi and 34-year-old guard Shinsuke Kashiwagi believe that the current team has a lot of potential.
Sakuragi recalled that the team was “very smart” with many older players for the first few years after he joined the team in 2001. But he believes that the present squad has different abilities.
“Now we use a lot of our ability, athletic ability, shooting ability, running ability,” said the 39-year-old Sakuragi, who was formerly known as J.R. Henderson and obtained Japanese citizenship in 2007. “So I use our ability to win. I use Kanamaru’s shooting. I tell him where I want him to go. I watch his style, what he likes to do, so he can score. Hiejima’s good at dribbling and running and penetration, so we kind of do things to get him in the zone.”
Sakuragi, who was on the NCAA national championship-winning UCLA team in 1995, said that the present SeaHorses team is undoubtedly a more athletic squad than ever, and has the “potential to become the strongest team.”
“Everything is there, but now it’s got to come together,” Sakuragi said. “It’s very dangerous how this team can be. I see it. I’m sure other people see it. We can score 100 points a game if we want to. That’s how good this team is.”