CHIBA – Imagine how mentally tough it must be when your team gets mauled two days in a row by a division rival and is on the verge of demotion to a lower division.
The Sendai 89ers got swept by the Chiba Jets, who have already clinched a postseason berth in the B. League, in a two-game series this past weekend.
The 89ers didn’t just lose both games — they were brutally thrashed by the Jets.
Sendai took a 96-53 loss on Saturday, and head coach Takeo Mabashi urged his players to play with intensity going in the second game of the series at Chiba Port Arena.
“I asked our guys to play harder,” Mabashi said after Sunday’s game. “We shouldn’t forget about yesterday’s game but we needed to overcome this tough time on our own.”
Nonetheless, harsh reality hit the Tohoku club. Sendai was tamed 102-61 in the second game by Chiba, which improved to 39-16.
The 89ers’ heart and soul, Takehiko Shimura, who has been on the team since the 2008 season (there was a short period of time when he played for the Ryukyu Golden Kings on loan in 2011), expressed his honest feelings after the game.
“We got beaten up,” the 34-year-old Shimura said. “We are on the same stage (with the Jets), but we got sandbagged. It’s not easy to overcome this mentally. We knew that we had to play as hard as we could, but somewhere in our minds, we thought: ‘Ah, we can’t do it.’ We are in a negative spiral.”
With five more games to play this season, the 89ers currently have a 13-42 record — worst in the 18-team top division through Sunday’s games — and will likely have to compete in next month’s survival playoffs, in which the four teams with the worst records will battle to stay in the top division. The two teams who finish last in the survival playoffs will automatically be demoted to the second division, to be replaced by the top two second-division teams. The team that finishes second in the survival playoffs will play a one-off game against the third-place finisher in the second division.
Shimura said that it hurts his team more to lose late in the season as it did against Chiba, than to do so earlier in the year.
“It makes you feel that your team has not developed, after all these days and weeks we’ve been working,” said Shimura, who captured championships at high school and collegiate levels. “We won one (against the Jets) at the beginning (in their season-opening series last September. The 89ers won 68-60). Yet we are behind them this much now.”
But in a sense, Sendai doesn’t have to dwell on many things at this point — just concentrate on staying in the top division at the end of the season. The ultimate focus for the 89ers, who are missing a few core players including guard Kaito Ishikawa and Wendell White through injury, right now is to win in the survival playoffs.
“There’s nothing left but to win in May,” the 160-cm Shimura said. “That’s our top priority. I’m not saying we can lose, but it’s important for us to prepare ourselves leading up to May.
“This season has almost been a failure for our team, but we still have a chance to change that by winning in the end and that gives us a lot of motivation. To be honest, without it (the motivation for the survival playoffs), we could’ve given up a long time ago.”