UTSUNOMIYA, TOCHIGI PREF. - The Kenji Hasegawa era began with his successful debut at the helm on Friday night.
The new Tochigi Brex head coach steered his team to a season-opening 78-64 triumph over the visiting SeaHorses Mikawa.
Tochigi delivered a high-energy performance in its convincing win. The club’s players were efficient in executing the overall offensive and defensive tactics, and they seized momentum in the second quarter and held on to it.
In short, the defending champion Brex picked up where they left off in May under ex-bench boss Tom Wisman — that is, with a victory in their first real game since the league’s inaugural playoff finale at Yoyogi National Gymnasium.
In an on-court interview after the game before the crowd filed out of the jam-packed gym, Hasegawa commended his players for their spirited effort. He cited defensive energy and strong defensive rebounding as keys to victory.
Speaking in the press room later, Hasegawa told reporters he wants defense to be a trademark of his team.
Star guard Yuta Tabuse summed up the victory by saying it was a “good feeling.”
Tochigi was firmly in control in the fourth quarter with a 68-49 lead with about 7½ to go minutes at cozy Brex Arena Utsunomiya before an announced crowd of 4,012.
The Brex lead stretched to 21 points after a pair of Cedric Bozeman free throws, the UCLA alum sinking both with 7:16 to play.
Even with a large cushion, Tochigi, which led by as many as 22 points down the stretch, did not let up before the final buzzer.
Ryan Rossiter commented on the team’s intensity by noting he tried to encourage the team’s backups in a timeout to continue to play hard.
“Just trying to think of the big picture,” Rossiter said.
“. . .We’re trying to get better every game.”
Responding to a question about if other B1 teams may be overlooking Tochigi, Rossiter said, “(Regardless of what) any team thinks of us, it’s not going to change how we play.
“We’re going to play hard every game.”
That was the defining trait of the Brex’s season opener.
Tochigi won the battle on the boards 48-34, including 22-7 on the offensive glass.
Mikawa head coach Kimikazu Suzuki said his club’s inadequate rebounding in the second and third quarters triggered the Brex’s second-chance opportunities, which they dominated (14-3 in total points).
In addition, the SeaHorses’ offense was not up to par, said Suzuki.
He quickly turned the page, looking ahead to Saturday’s rematch.
“We have another chance and we need to play better,” Suzuki commented.
Rossiter and newcomer Bozeman paced the Brex with 15 points apiece. Rossiter hauled in a game-high 12 rebounds and shared the team lead in assists (four) with Tabuse. Shusuke Ikuhara poured in 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting, converting 2 of 3 3-pointers on the night. Yusuke Endo and Kyle Richardson, another newcomer, both had eight points. Tabuse finished with five points.
Longtime SeaHorses leader J.R. Sakuragi had 12 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Daniel Orton added nine points with five turnovers. Mikawa’s Takanobu Nishikawa, Isaac Butts and Kosuke Kanamaru all scored eight points.
Neither team’s offense was triggered by 3-point shooting brilliance, with the Brex making 5 of 16 and the SeaHorses converting 4 of 9.
Fueled by 55.6 percent shooting from the field, the visitors led 21-13 after the opening quarter. Tochigi was held to 31.6 percent in the first period.
Mikawa had built a 9-3 cushion after a Ryoma Hashimoto 3-pointer at about the 7:10 mark.
The hosts clawed back, pulling within 11-9 after back-to-back-to-back baskets by Rossiter, the last of which was a layup.
The SeaHorses responded with an 8-2 spurt to take a 19-11 lead with 2:41 to go in the first quarter. The run ended with a steal by Hiejima that led to a Sakuragi layup.
The Brex then called a timeout to regroup.
Seconds later, Ikuhara canned a straight-away jumper.
Another Sakuragi layup accounted for the final points of the stanza.
In a tightly contested second quarter, Tochigi’s Shuhei Kitagawa buried a 3 to tie it up at 21-21.
For Mikawa, Sakuragi drained a jumper to make it 23-23.
As the quarter progressed, Richardson was an active presence in the lane for the hosts. He stepped outside to knock down a top-of-the-key jumper and supplied a tip-in on consecutive trips down the court. The latter bucket gave Tochigi a short-lived 32-28 advantage.
Just after the midway point of the quarter, SeaHorses newcomer Orton converted an inside shot to knot it at 32-32.
Both teams were aggressive on offense in the first half, making crisp passes and attacking the basket.
Defensive intensity was also a constant presence as shooters were challenged with hands in their faces, while rebounding battles were fierce.
To close out the half, Rossiter had a tip-in to account for the final points of the first 20 minutes, giving Tochigi a 41-36 lead.
Before the buzzer sounded, though, Butts attempted a putback that missed its target.
For the Brex, Rossiter had 11 first-half points to lead both teams, and Bozeman and Ikuhara both added nine. Sakuragi scored 10 before the intermission.
The Tochigi offense set the tone inside, scoring 40 points in the paint to Mikawa’s 24.
The SeaHorses were limited to 11 third-quarter points, and the reigning champs dominated large stretches of the period.
After Mikawa pulled within 43-40 early in the third, Tochigi outscored the visitors 18-7 the rest of the quarter. A plethora of on-target jump shots and solid offensive rebounding that led to second-chance scoring chances helped the Brex build their sizable lead.
Tochigi took a 61-47 advantage into the final stanza.
Credit the Brex’s relentless energy for playing a part, which contributed to their dominating rebounding effort. Through three quarters, Tochigi outrebounded Mikawa 35-25, including a 13-5 edge on the offensive boards.
Hasegawa described the Brex’s rebounding as stellar, saying the effort was there. He pointed out that the effort to go after loose balls helped secure numerous rebounds.
In other season openers on Friday night, the Sunrockers Shibuya routed the host Ryukyu Golden Kings 73-54, the visiting Shiga Lakestars downed the Yohama B-Corsairs 73-56 and the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins edged the host Kawasaki Brave Thunders 77-76.
IN THE PAINT
Before the game, veteran forward Jeff Gibbs, whose fourth-quarter heroics sparked the Brex en route to a title in May, spoke on the court, greeting the fans at the end of a presentation of the team’s returning championship members.
Gibbs’ name was called last by the public-address announcer, and the fans showered him with boisterous applause.
Rehabbing an Achilles injury sustained in the title game, Gibbs wore street clothes, including a Brex polo shirt.
Gibbs said it’s “a great honor for me coming back here.”
Looking back on the glory of the 2016-17 championship season, Gibbs said, “It was a great feeling, a great experience. . . . Let’s do it again.”
The Brex have unveiled their slogan for the new season, choosing the no-nonsense “Brex mentality” to express their outlook.
The SeaHorses, meanwhile, selected “improvement takes work.”