The Aisin SeaHorses prevailed when things mattered most as they knocked the No. 1 seed Toyota Alvark out of the postseason with an 84-79 victory in Game 2 of the NBL playoff semifinals at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 on Sunday.
The reigning league champion SeaHorses, the No. 4 seed in the playoffs who finished the regular season with a 35-18 record, are going back to the NBL Finals, which will tip off on Saturday at Ota City General Gymnasium.
With another series sweep this postseason, the SeaHorses retained their unbeaten mark in the playoffs at 4-0.
“Our team have been here and done that, so we know how to play in the postseason,” Aisin head coach Kimikazu Suzuki said after the game. “But we knew it would be tough and we didn’t think we’d beat Toyota easily. So I feel relieved that we’ve finished the series in two games.”
With the game tied at 76-all with just over 30 seconds left in the game, Toyota center Richard Solomon was fouled but missed both free throws.
In contrast, Aisin had eight shots from the charity stripe in the remainder of the contest, and they made all of them to pull out the win.
“Once there was five minutes left in the game, we tried to have extra concentration and it paid off with us making those free throws,” SeaHorses point guard and captain Ryoma Hashimoto said.
The Alvark, the No. 1 offensive team in the league this season (82.8 points per game), got off to a 9-0 start in the game and built a 14-point lead in the second quarter. But Aisin played patiently and bounced back to enter halftime down by just two points at 43-41.
The Alvark regrouped and upped the pace of the game in the second half, but Aisin resiliently kept up with them.
Aisin’s dynamic Japanese duo Kosuke Kanamaru and Makoto Hiejima in particular stepped up in the final quarter. In that period alone, Kanamaru had 11 points and Hiejima scored seven points to help their team catch up with Toyota.
Kanamaru, who went 4-for-7 from behind the 3-point line, led the game with 24 points, while Hiejima followed with 18.
Rebounding was a key factor for the SeaHorses’ win, too. They were outrebounded 52-39 in Saturday’s Game 1, but won that category 42-33 on Sunday.
Toyota’s players and staff were devastated after the game. The team ended the regular season by winning 14 games in a row and swept the Chiba Jets in the first round of the playoffs. They clearly had a better shot than anybody to be crowned as the NBL’s final champions, but came up short in the end.
Toyota’s 33-year-old head coach Takuma Ito took the full blame for the result.
“I told our players in a meeting after the game that it’s my responsibility our team wasn’t able to win in the playoffs,” said Ito, who took over the position last summer after veteran American bench supervisor Donald Beck left for the WJBL’s Toyota Antelopes. “This came from me not having coaching experience in the playoffs.
“Both I and our players still need more experience. Aisin was tough, that was evident in the fourth quarter. They were clever.”
Hashimoto explained the reason why the SeaHorses can come through when games are on the line.
“We know our team’s tradition,” Hashimoto said. “People like J.R. (Sakuragi), (Kenichi) Sako and (Shinsuke) Kashiwagi have taught us about who we are and now it’s guys like me, Kanamaru and Hiejima that do it to other players. So we know how to win.”
For the Alvark, Michael Parker and Daiki Tanaka led the team with 13 points apiece. Solomon racked up 10 points and 12 boards to chip in for the Fuchu-based club.
Toyota hit just 22.2 percent of its 3-point shots in Game 1, but six different players nailed at least one for an overall 9-for-20-effort in the second game.
Brave Thunders 76, Brex 69
In Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, Nick Fazekas had 24 points and 20 rebounds to help Toshiba tie its semifinal series with Link Tochigi at 1-all.
The decisive Game 3 will tip off at 7:15 p.m. at Brex Arena Utsunomiya on Monday.
Regular-season MVP Ryan Rossiter scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds for Link Tochigi.