Basketball

Chiba beats Mikawa to capture second straight All-Japan Championship title

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Chiba Jets Funabashi rose to the occasion once again.

They set the prevailing pace in the second and third quarters and captured their second consecutive Emperor’s Cup with a 89-75 victory over the SeaHorses Mikawa at the 93rd All-Japan Championship final on Sunday.

University of Connecticut alum Gavin Edwards guided the Jets with a 20-point, 10-rebound performance against his old club. Ryumo Ono sank four of his eight 3-point attempts and scored 18 points to follow Edwards. Forward Michael Parker had 15 points and eight rebounds, and Fumio Nishimura contributed with 10 points and nine assists for the Jets.

After a closely contested opening quarter, which ended with Mikawa ahead 22-21, the Jets gradually seized momentum, taking advantage of the athleticism of Parker and Edwards and aggressive defense that forced the SeaHorses into miscues. They had a 22-point lead at the end of third quarter.

Mikawa rallied in the final period, but it was a little too late. Some of its core inside players like J.R. Sakuragi and Daniel Orton fell into foul trouble and the team suffered as a result.

Sakuragi had to sit on the bench having picked up four fouls (he played just 20 minutes, 49 seconds), while Orton fouled out in the fourth. Mikawa bench boss Kimikazu Suzuki said the foul trouble was one of the factors that contributed to the loss.

Chiba forward Ono proudly said the Jets played all three of their games in the tournament in the way they like to play, namely with tenacious defense and up-tempo offense.

“All three of these games were our best games,” he said.

Chiba point guard Yuki Togashi, its biggest star, missed the three games with a bruised left thigh, but the Jets played together and overcame the disadvantage by collectively filling the void.

“I think that we proved through these three games that we can win games when we play as a team,” Ono said. “It’s important to play as a group, not a collection of individuals — these three games made us feel that way.”

For the SeaHorses, Japan national team guard Makoto Hiejima led the team with 19 points and seven assists. Orton racked up 16 points and nine boards for the Kariya, Aichi Prefecture team, which shares the best record in the B. League this season with the Alvark Tokyo at 22-6.

Edwards, who was acquired by Chiba from the SeaHorses before this season, said he felt “on top of the world” after capturing the title.

The 29-year-old, who was awarded the tournament MVP, said winning the top individual award came a little as a surprise because everybody played so well.

“I didn’t really know how it was going to be,” Edwards said. “But I was definitely surprised.”

It might have stunned a lot of fans as well, because Edwards was more of a sidekick to other star players, including Sakuragi, and mainly expected to step up on the defensive side of ball when he was with the SeaHorses.

But in his first year with the Jets, Edwards has led the team with 17.3 points per game in the ongoing B. League campaign.

Edwards, who averaged 13.4 points in the four seasons he donned the SeaHorses jersey, said it’s turned out this way for him simply because of “the way the team is made up.

“With Aisin (the SeaHorses), we didn’t really try to focus on one specific person,” Edwards said. “But here, they made it very clear early that they wanted me to be an inside presence and they’ve always wanted to try to get me the ball inside. So it was just the way they set me up.”

Edwards said there were some special feelings in taking on his former team, but said his focus was on contributing to a “W” for his new club, which has posted a 19-9 mark so far in the 2017-18 B. League season.

“Definitely a little bit,” Edwards said of his extra emotion. “But I didn’t want to have that overtake the focus for just playing the game the way it was supposed to. So it definitely gave me a little bit of extra energy to play . . . had a little something extra to play for, but I didn’t want to overshadow what we are trying to do.”

When asked if he knew how to guard his old teammate, former UCLA player Sakuragi, Edwards laughingly responded by saying, “Uh, you could always say you know how to guard J.R., but nobody really knows (how to defend him) because he’s so skilled and stuff,” the Phoenix native said.

Sakuragi often posts up at the low post with the basket behind him and finds a way to score using his elbows.

“Oh yeah, I’ve done a lot of those over four years,” Edwards said of Sakuragi’s elbow usage with a smile. “I have an idea what (his former SeaHorses teammates) are going to do.”

Edwards competed in the NCAA Final Four with the UConn Huskies in 2009 (losing to Michigan State University in the semifinals). He said the net-cutting the Jets players did after Sunday’s final certainly felt better than when UConn advanced to the Final Four.

“Oh yeah, definitely better to win a championship (when you cut nets),” he said. “It’s a lot different.”

Edwards, Nishimura, Ono, Orton and Hiejima were chosen on the all-tourney team.