With one action-packed weekend of playoff games in the books, the number of title-chasing teams is now down to eight.
Now, the focus shifts to the upcoming conference semifinals. In the Eastern Conference, the top-seeded Toyama Grouses will face the No. 5 Iwate Big Bulls, and the No. 2 Sendai 89ers will meet the No. 3 Akita Northern Happinets.
In the Western Conference, the No. 1 Kyoto Hannaryz will face the No. 5 Shiga Lakestars, and the second-seeded Ryukyu Golden Kings will lock horns with the No. 6 Osaka Evessa.
So how did these teams survive the opening round?
What follows is a recap of Sunday’s action.
Grouses 81, Wat’s 52
In Toyama, Coach of the Year Bob Nash’s club rolled to its 11th consecutive victory, ending eight-seeded Aomori’s season and reaching the second round of the playoffs.
The Grouses (41-13) led 56-44 after three quarters, then throttled the visitors down the stretch.
Drew Viney, a Loyola Marymount University alum, paced Toyama with 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Sam Willard finished with 19 points and 16 rebounds, while Masashi Joho poured in 19 points and hauled in 12 boards to go with three assists and three steals. Takeshi Mito had seven points and four assists.
The Grouses committed 23 turnovers.
Aomori (23-31) shot 20-for-63 from the field in its final game in the bj-league. (The B. League begins in the fall, replacing the current setup of the NBL, NBDL and bj-league and bringing them under one three-division umbrella.)
Well-traveled star Nile Murry led the Wat’s with 13 points and added eight boards and seven steals. Yuki Kitamuki scored 11 points, while Makoto Sawaguchi and Yoshifumi Nakajma both had eight. Jesse Perry grabbed 10 rebounds in the loss.
“Toyama has a very good team,” Murry, a Texas Christian University alum, told The Japan Times in a post-game interview.
“They compliment each other well and they play good team defense. They played both ends of the floor better than we did and they showed why they are the top team in the East.”
Exhibit A: The Grouses have triumphed in 18 of their past 19 games.
Murry, the playoff MVP last season for the champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix, also reflected on the Wat’s season during an interview.
“I’m proud of my guys,” the veteran guard said. “We fought an uphill battle all season dealing with injuries to make it to the playoffs. Toyama was the stronger team today and I wish them luck.”
89ers 85, Brave Warriors 77
In Sendai, Manato Kikuchi scored a season-high 24 points and regular-season MVP Wendell White had a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds as the hosts completed a series sweep of seventh-seeded Shinshu.
Kikuchi shot 9-for-16 from the field and 6-for-8 at the free-throw line.
Jamal Boykin added 15 points for the 89ers (39-15), Takehiko Shimura chipped in with 14 points, five steals and four assists and Terrance Shannon finished with eight points and 12 rebounds.
Sendai made 13 steals in the series finale.
Florida Atlantic University alum Mike Bell paced Shinshu with 27 points and pulled down nine rebounds. Junki Kano scored 10 points, while Yosuke Saito and Dai Suzuki both had nine. Xavier Gibson contributed eight points, 10 rebounds and six blocks.
Suzuki turned the ball over seven times, and the Brave Warriors (27-27) finished with 20 turnovers.
“As a team, for the most part, we followed our game plan and executed well. We played well,” Bell told The Japan Times in a post-game interview. “Bottom line is they just scored more points than we did… Plane and simple.
“Sendai is very good at spacing out the floor and sharing the basketball. Add them having many options/players that can knock down shots — that’s a combination that’s difficult to defend. We were pretty much the same as well this weekend.”
He added: “We all know that it was a good year for the Brave Warriors after considering how we started out the first half of the season. We worked hard and came together as a team as the year went on and were playing our best ball as the season continued to unfold.
“We had a lot of fun, specifically the 2016 part of the season, when we started winning the majority of our games. Of course we wished we could have continued with the success and went much further in the playoffs. But overall, none of us will be holding our head down, we did a lot of growing this year.”
Northern Happinets 82, Firebonds 71
In Akita, the hosts overpowered Fukushima in the second half to earn a trip to the conference semifinals.
The Northern Happinets (37-17) outscored the visitors 53-26 over the final 20 minutes.
Akita’s Shigehiro Taguchi had a team-high 17 points with 10 rebounds. Richard Roby and Ray Turner scored 16 points apiece, Scott Morrison poured in 13 and Yuto Otsuka had 10 on 4-for-4 shooting from the field.
Though he struggled from 3-point range (0-for-5), Roby made an impact with 8-for-10 shooting from inside the arc, and added 10 rebounds, four assists and two blocks.
Turner provided nine rebounds and four steals for the Happinets, who are coming off their second straight championship runner-up season.
Akita out-rebounded Fukushima 49-36. Another key statistic in the win: 55.4 percent shooting from 2-point range.
For the Firebonds (30-24), who reached the playoffs in each of their first two seasons as a franchise, Stephan Van Treese scored 19 points and collected eight rebounds. Rookie forward Le’Bryan Nash, who led the league in scoring (26.6 points per game) during the regular season, was held to 13 points on 4-for-18 shooting. Nash added five assists and three blocks.
Bingo Merriex had 12 points, Kenya Tomori scored 10 and Masaya Karimata nine.
Looking at the game’s outcome, Van Treese, a University of Louisville product, said, “The deciding factors were that they won the loose-ball battle and also got turnovers when they needed them.
“It’s very tough to win in the playoffs. Every possession matters.”
He added: “I think we had a good season overall. We have a lot of good players on this team. I think personally I had a pretty good year and I know what I need to work on for next year.”
Akita star forward Roby said the key to victory was “just grinding it out for 40 minutes, not giving up no matter what was happening in the game.”
In the series, he said, “it was two-hard fought games. Both teams played really hard; we just outlasted them.
“We have to play better offensively and have better starts,” Roby added.
Big Bulls 83, Albirex BB 66
In Niigata, Iwate sharpshooter Patrick Sanders sank seven 3-pointers out of 11 attempts en route to 33 points as the fifth-seeded Big Bulls marched on to the second by routing the hosts.
Iwate (32-22) took a 45-31 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Sanders was the big star in Game 1 of the series, too, scoring 30 points and draining 5 of 9 3s.
In the rematch, Shota Onodera and Kaito Ishikawa had 12 points apiece for the Big Bulls, Abdullahi Kuso provided 10 points and 10 boards and Tatsunori Fujie chipped in with eight points and eight assists. Forward Alandise Harris, the team’s leading scorer (16.4 ppg), missed the series due to an undisclosed injury.
“Honestly, we were a man down,” Sanders said, reflecting on Harris’ absence and his mindset for the series. “So I just wanted to help out in any way I could. My teammates found me in our offense and I was able to knock down some shots.”
He added: “We as a team are very pleased with our effort both games, Niigata is very good team and well coached and we were able to turn up the defense.”
Niigata hurt its cause at the free-throw line, making just 16 of 26 shots, including Faye Pape Mour’s 4-for-12. The hosts also missed 16 of 20 3-point attempts.
Wayne Arnold led the Albirex (34-20) with 22 points and Ryan Reid scored 16 and grabbed eight rebounds.
On Sunday, Albirex bench boss Kazuo Nakamura was on the sideline for the final time in a bj-league game. The 75-year-old mentor won two titles with Hamamatsu and a title runner-up finish with Akita in past seasons.
Hannaryz 91, Rizing 80
In Muko, Kyoto Prefecture, Kevin Kotzur’s 21 points and 19 rebounds and Tyren Johnson’s 20-point, four-block performance energized the Hannaryz in their second victory in as many days over No. 8 Fukuoka.
Guard Sunao Murakami added 17 points, making 13 of 16 free throws on a day when Kyoto (43-11) was repeatedly sent to the line. Coach Honoo Hamaguchi’s team attempted 45 foul shots and converted 34 of them.
For the Rizing (20-34), five players were whistled for four or more personal fouls, and 33 fouls in all were called against them.
Josh Peppers led Fukuoka with 19 points. Donnavan Kirk had 17 points and 14 rebounds, and nine-time All-Star and league icon Cohey Aoki had 17 points and three steals in his final bj-league game.
Golden Kings 88, Samuraiz 73
In Okinawa City, Ryukyu clamped down on Kanazawa’s offense in the fourth quarter, holding the visitors to nine points in the final 10 minutes to seal the victory.
Shuhei Kitagawa led the Golden Kings (42-12) with 18 points and Draelon Burns and Ryuichi Kishimoto had 17 apiece. Evan Ravenel added 12 points and Anthony McHenry contributed 11 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
The seventh-seeded Samuraiz, a first-year franchise, trailed 49-43 at halftime.
Gyno Pomare finished with a game-best 22 points for Kanazawa (27-25). Marshall Brown added 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists, Andrew Fitzgerald had eight points and Yuji Ide and Masato Tsukino both scored seven.
Evessa 61, Susanoo Magic 55
In Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, Osaka turned the tide in the second quarter, limiting the hosts to five points and transforming a three-point deficit after the opening stanza into a nine-point advantage by halftime.
For the No. 6 Evessa (37-17), Lawrence “Trend” Blackledge had 16 points and seven rebounds and Shun Watanuki scored 10 points. Naoaki Hashimoto added nine points and DeAngelo Hamilton and Narito Namizato both put seven points on the board.
Osaka held Shimane to 21-for-63 shooting.
Scootie Randall led the Susanoo Magic (37-17) with 17 points, 17 rebounds and three steals. Jun Abe finished with 16 points and Tatsuhiro Yokoo added 10. Wayne Marshall contributed five points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and four blocks.
Shimane played the series without Josh Davis, the league’s leading rebounder (15.5 per game) during the 52-game season, due to a left-thigh injury. He also missed the final weekend of the regular season.
Without Davis, the Magic had a 48-46 edge in total rebounds on Sunday.
Osaka coach Dai Oketani said Davis’ absence was the biggest factor in the series.
“We could get more rebounds and have some extra possessions,” Oketani told The Japan Times.
Lakestars 77, Phoenix 67
In Hamamatsu, No. 5 seed Shiga outscored the Phoenix 20-10 in the fourth quarter, putting an end to Hamamatsu’s chances of repeating as bj-league champion.
Jeff Parmer’s all-around strong play (20 points, 15 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks) and Yu Okada’s 19-point outing helped lead the Lakestars (37-17) past the defending champion. Julian Mavunga and Jamelle Horne scored 16 and 10 points, respectively, for coach Koto Toyama’s club.
“It was a great team win in both games this weekend,” said Parmer, a former Phoenix standout. “I’m proud of how my teammates stayed the course even when Hamamatsu had the momentum at different times in each game.
“We knew going into the games this weekend that Hamamatsu would give us their best shot. But we made a consistent effort in each game to come out with great energy and focus to maintain that energy for 80 minutes.”
After he scored 40 points in the series opener, Mavunga said the focus was more on slowing down Hamamatsu’s offense in the rematch.
“They made 15 3-point shots yesterday and we really wanted to limit their perimeter shooting today,” Mavunga said in a post-game interview.
“Today I think they made it a primary objective to stop me,” he said after making 5 of 16 shots from the field, “and they did a solid job. But I’m a player so I didn’t try to force too much and other guys stepped up. Like Jeff, who’s the heart and soul of our team. He had 20 and 15 and it’s crazy because he was way more valuable than those numbers. He makes big defensive plays and he also is a workhorse.”
Mavunga also paid tribute to Horne.
“Jamelle Horne was a big key in us closing the game out today,” Mavunga said. “He had eight big points in a 5-minute span and he played a big part in us getting some key defensive stops. (Hamamatsu) tried to run isolation plays for Reggie Warren as well as Atsu (Atsuya Ota) against him and he got four straight stops! He was amazing down the stretch.”
Asked about his 40-point outburst on Saturday, Mavunga had this to say: “I was hot and my teammates had faith in me to continue giving me the ball. It was fun but I’m gonna take what the defense gives me. We’re happy to advance and we’re excited for the next round against Kyoto.”
Phoenix power forward Warren, one of the bj-league’s enduring stars, finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Kejuan Johnson had 13 points and nine boards with three assists, Shingo Okada scored 10 points and Ota and Toshifumi Kawamitsu both had seven.
Hamamatsu shot 24-for-73 from the field.
“We should have won yesterday’s game in regulation,” Warren said. “KJ (Kejuan Johnson) was clearly fouled with less than a second (left). But hey, it’s the bj-league. We fought until the end, gave great effort. It just wasn’t in the cards for us.
“We had a lot of changes this season and we tried to make the best of it all. Proud of my teammates for fighting until the last second.”
Warren, who made his bj-league debut with the Takamatsu Five Arrows in 2006, reflected on being a part of the league’s major growth (from eight teams that season to 24 now) and history for the majority of the league’s 11 seasons.
“It’s been a pleasure playing in the bj-league,” he told The Japan Times. “The league has grown a lot, and it’s great for the Japanese basketball. It’s been fun and competitive and I have done everything and accomplished everything in the bj-league but the championship so it’s a disappointing ending, but I have (had) many accomplishments in this league.”
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