The defending champion Tochigi Brex didn’t have the same swagger and chemistry when the season began.

But they have made steady progress over the past few months, with veteran leader Jeff Gibbs returning to a starring role after an Achilles injury in the title game last May.

Tochigi has won seven of its last 10 games, including three in a row.

Saturday’s down-to-the-wire road victory, a 73-71 triumph over the Chiba Jets Funabashi, came down to key plays in the closing seconds.

Shuhei Kitagawa sank two free throws with 2 seconds to play.

Ryan Rossiter then stole the ball from Chiba’s Leo Lyons with 1 second left.

Tochigi won its third game in a row, doing so before a packed house at Funabashi Arena (5,155 spectators).

In the series opener, Rossiter led Tochigi with 17 points, 17 rebounds, five assists and five steals. He also had a block and scored seven fourth-quarter points.

Brex guard Yusuke Endo had nine of his 15 points in the fourth quarter. He was 3 of 3 from the field in the fourth, including 2 of 2 on 3s. Overall, Endo was 4-for-4 from beyond the arc. Backcout mate Yuta Tabuse had 11 points, including six in the final stanza, while Kitagawa finished with 12. Kosuke Takeuchi contributed nine points and five rebounds.

Chiba led 31-30 at halftime and 55-45 after three quarters.

The Brex outworked the Jets on the boards, winning the rebounding battle by a 39-27 margin.

Yuki Togashi paced Chiba (31-12) with 18 points and five assists. Gavin Edwards scored 15 points and corralled nine rebounds. Ryumo Ono had 12 points. Lyons and Kosuke Ishii both scored eight points.

The Jets had a woeful performance at the free-throw line, making 7 of 17 shots. The Brex, on the other hand, were 13 of 17.

“Today’s win was very important, every game matters and getting in a win against a great team like Chiba at their home gym is good momentum, but today is over and we need to refocus for tomorrow’s game,” Rossiter told The Japan Times.

“The last two months of the season will be a lot of fun, many teams are fighting for position to reach the championship so every team will be playing as hard as they can.”

For the Brex, it took time to re-establish their identity after management never offered title-winning bench boss Tom Wisman a new contract. Kenji Hasegawa lasted only 13 games in charge as Wisman’s replacement.

But when assistant Ryuzo Anzai took over to fill Hasegawa’s position in November, Tochigi started to turn things around. (Anzai had previously worked under Wisman.)

The Brex were 5-8 at the time of Anzai’s promotion; they are 24-19 now. Gibbs has been a key contributor for a few months now; he made his return on Dec. 20. In 20 games (14 starts), he is averaging 11.2 points and 6.2 rebounds.

Diamond Dolphins 79, B-Corsairs 62

In Nagoya, the hosts jumped out to a 13-point halftime lead and cruised past Yokohama.

Taito Nakahigashi shot 6-for-7 from the field, including 2 of 2 on 3s, and scored a team-high 17 points for the Diamond Dolphins (21-22).

Tenketsu Harimoto had 13 points and Justin Burrell and Shinsuke Kashiwagi both poured in 10. Burrell grabbed 10 rebounds to complete the double-double.

Harimoto led the team with five assists.

William McDonald had 18 points and eight rebounds for the B-Corsairs (11-32), who have lost seven straight. Jotaro Mitsuda finished with 11 points and Masashi Hosoya had nine. Hasheem Thabeet provided eight points and two blocks.

Alvark 96, Storks 72

In Kakogawa, Hyogo Prefecture, Alex Kirk scored 21 points and pulled down 13 rebounds and seven teammates had seven or more points as Tokyo outplayed the struggling hosts.

Joji Takeuchi added 11 points and Zack Baranski and Daiki Tanaka both scored 10, with Tanaka also dishing out six assists. Seiya Ando, Jawad Williams and Takeki Shonaka all had nine points for the Alvark (32-11). Genki Kojima and Brendan Lane both scored seven points.

Herbert Hill led the Storks (7-36) with 28 points, Draelon Burns scored 16 and made four steals and Noriaki Dohara chipped in with 11 points.

Nishinomiya suffered its 13th straight loss.

NeoPhoenix 88, Albirex BB 66

In Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, San-en defenders held Niigata to 2-for-19 shooting from 3-point range and the hosts rolled to their seventh consecutive victory.

Robert Dozier, a University of Memphis alum, notched a double-double (23 points, 11 rebounds) for the NeoPhoenix (22-21) and Wendell White had 14 points and 10 boards. Scott Morrison added 15 points on 7-for-10 shooting and Shuto Tawatari scored 10 points. Hayato Kawashima contributed nine points and three steals and Tatsuya Suzuki chipped in with eight points, six assists and three steals.

Albirex star Davante Gardner scored a game-high 30 points and Lamont Hamilton had 10 points and seven rebounds. No other Niigata player had more than four points.

Kei Igarashi led the Albirex (19-24) with four assists.

Hannaryz 85, Evessa 79

In Osaka, Julian Mavunga and Joshua Smith score 20 points apiece and Masaharu Kataoka and Tatsuya Ito both dished out five assists as Kyoto earned a series-opening win.

Ito added 12 points and three steals, while Kataoka poured in 10 points.

The Hannaryz (26-17) stepped to the free-throw line for 33 attempts (22 makes). The Evessa made 10 of 14 foul shots.

For Osaka (15-28), Xavier Gibson had 22 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. Keith Benson scored 13 points, Shota Konno had 12 and Takuya Hashimoto 11.

Golden Kings 77, Susanoo Magic 57

In Okinawa City, Hassan Martin had 20 points on 10-for-14 shooting and grabbed 16 rebounds and sharpshooter Takatoshi Furukawa drained five 3s in an electrifying 17-point night as the hosts hammered Shimane.

Naoki Tashiro scored 11 points and Ira Brown had eight for the Golden Kings (33-10).

Ryukyu held the Susanoo Magic to 23 second-half points.

Josh Scott led Shimane (7-36) with 15 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and three blocks and Edward Yamamoto and Gyno Pomare scored nine apiece.

The Magic’s losing streak now stands at 17 games.

Grouses 98, Levanga 86

In Sapporo, Toyama’s offense heated up in the second half and the Grouses snapped a 10-game losing streak.

Toyama’s Clint Chapman scored 25 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, Naoki Uto recorded a triple-double (20 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists), Yuto Otsuka poured in 19 points and Sam Willard had 18 points and 12 boards.

The Grouses (18-25) put 60 points on the board after halftime. They led 38-34 at the break.

Marc Trasolini scored 28 points and hauled in eight rebounds for Hokkaido (21-22). Daniel Miller, Ryota Sakurai and Dijon Thompson added 10 points apiece.

SeaHorses 74, Sunrockers 61

In Tokyo, Kosuke Kanamaru’s 21-point performance and J.R. Sakuragi’s 12-point, 11-rebound game sparked Mikawa in a victory over Shibuya.

The SeaHorses (35-8) outrebounded the hosts 51-42, with Isaac Butts pulling down a game-high 14 boards.

Keijuro “K.J.” Matsui, a Columbia University alum, added 10 points for Mikawa, which improved to 15-5 in away contests, and Makoto Hiejima and Courtney Sims scored nine points apiece. Ryoma Hashimoto handed out five assists and Hiejima registered four assists.

In winning their 11th straight game, the SeaHorses had 17 assists and five turnovers.

Kenta Hirose, who scored 12 points, was the Sunrockers’ only double-digit scorer. Ruben Boykin had nine points and Robert Sacre added eight on 4-for-12 shooting.

Brave Thunders 74, Lakestars 60

In Kawasaki, Nick Fazekas’ 23-point, nine-rebound performance helped guide the hosts past Shiga for the second time in as many days.

Josh Davis contributed 13 points for the Brave Thunders (31-13), winners of eight straight. Teammate Naoto Tsuji canned three 3s in a 10-point effort. Yuma Fujii doled out five assists without a turnover.

Kawasaki trailed 37-35 at halftime, then outscored the visitors 20-8 in the third quarter.

D’or Fischer had 14 points and 13 boards for Shiga (13-31) and Narito Namizato finished with 11 points and 10 assists. Venky Jois also scored 11 points.

Both teams shot 39.7 percent from the floor

Second-division update

Here are the results of Saturday’s B2 games:

Northern Happinets 108, Fighting Eagles 92 (Akita extended its winning streak to 17 games, improving to 39-4 on the season.)

Volters 71, Bambitious 64

Samuraiz 85, Earthfriends 80

Brave Warriors 67, Crane Thunders 53

Rizing Zephyr 87, Dragonflies 82

Robots 88, Wat’s 73

Firebonds 92, Big Bulls 61

Wyverns 63, 89ers 62

Five Arrows 77, Orange Vikings 75

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