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Veteran J.R. Sakuragi sets tone for Mikawa in victory over Chiba

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Longtime SeaHorses Mikawa bench boss Kimikazu Suzuki commands respect from his players.

When he issues orders for a game, they listen. When he demands adjustments after a loss, their ears are tuned in to every word.

Such was the case on Sunday as Mikawa prepared for its rematch with the Chiba Jets Funabashi, a day after the SeaHorses’ 17-game winning streak ended.

Suzuki revealed afterward that he instructed his players to slow down the pace of the game, relying on their wealth of half-court offensive talents, and also to pick up the intensity as they chased after rebounds.

Mission accomplished.

The SeaHorses thrived in their half-court offensive sets, which also slowed down the Jets’ high-octane offense, and they dominated in the rebounding department in an impressive 102-84 triumph at Funabashi Arena before a capacity crowd of 5,380.

The weekend series featured the East Division leaders against the Central Division pace-setters, elite teams that squared off in the Emperor’s Cup final in January, which Chiba won for the second year in a row.

SeaHorses floor leader J.R. Sakuragi, who continues to defy Father Time, scored a team-best 26 points and handed out 11 assists. Donning jersey No. 32, a nod to his hero Magic Johnson and the 1980s Showtime Lakers, the 41-year-old Sakuragi helped set the tone from the get-go for Mikawa (42-9).

After losing 96-77 on Saturday, the SeaHorses led from start to finish in the series finale.

They jumped out to a 13-2 lead.

The rebounding numbers were similar in the series opener, with the Jets holding a 34-30 advantage.

A day later, the numbers were quite different. Center Isaac Butts powered the SeaHorses to an impressive 40-22 advantage, snaring 17 rebounds to lead all players. Nobody on the Jets had more than five boards.

Butts was an energizing force around the basket for the visitors, scoring 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting and using his muscular 208-cm, 133-kg frame to impact the game in the low post. Butts said later he was pleased to make a big impact for his team by utilizing his talents.

With Sakuragi and Butts exhibiting energy and effective play right away, their teammates also shined. Kosuke Kanamaru put 17 points on the board, Makoto Hiejima had 16, Keijuro Matsui poured in 10, including eight in the second quarter, and Ryoma Hashimoto finished with nine and five assists.

The SeaHorses were 17 of 18 at the free-throw line; the Jets were 11-for-12.

“Today’s game was tough as expected,” Sakuragi told reporters. “We just wanted to show our strengths today and have a good fight.”

As a title-chasing team with a history of success in the past JBL/NBL era, the SeaHorses remain hungry to be in the hunt for a championship this spring. Leading that chase is Sakuragi, who was asked about his aggressive play early in the game, which helped carry Mikawa to a 29-23 lead after the opening quarter.

Kanamaru scored 13 first-quarter points and Sakuragi had 12. Keeping the Jets (38-12) in the game, Yuki Togashi buried 3 of 4 3-pointers in the opening stanza, when he had 11 of his game-best 28 points.

“I wanted the ball,” Sakuragi declared. “I wanted to set the tempo for our team, so they could follow my lead.”

It worked.

Mikawa extended its advantage in the first quarter to 25-9 on a Sakuragi jumper. A Matsui jumper made it 27-12 moments later.

But Togashi kept coming back, nailing back-to-back 3s to trim the lead to 27-18. Butts pushed the margin back to double digits with a hook shot in the paint before another Togashi 3 brought it back to 29-21.

The Jets’ Michael Parker closed out the opening quarter with a layup, making it a six-point deficit.

Chiba got as close as four points in the second quarter, but Mikawa regained momentum and closed out the half on a 10-3 spurt capped by captain Masaya Karimata’s 3-pointer That made it 48-37.

The SeaHorses led by as many as 16 points in the third quarter, and big man Gavin Edwards’ 22-point performance and Togashi’s perimeter shots and quick forays to the hoop could not help overcome the big deficit.

Chiba got as close as 80-76 in the fourth on a pair of Edwards free throws with 6:05 left.

Mikawa answered every Jets run with an impressive stretch of its own, including a dominating closing stretch.

After the game, Suzuki said his players responded to the challenge of playing a better all-around game against Chiba. He implored them to cut down on their turnovers, too. (Mikawa had 16 turnovers in the opener, with 12 the next day).

“Solid team rebounding was very important today,” he added, “against a very good Chiba team.”

Jets coach Atsushi Ono praised Mikawa for playing an impressive game, citing the visitors’ scoring in half-court sets.

Ono admitted the Jets needed to step up and play better overall defense. He described the game as a good learning experience.

Edwards, who fouled out in the fourth, said every victory at this stage of the season is important for his team as it battles for the East Division title.

Conversely, Sakuragi described Saturday’s setback as a chance for his team to “reset” and regain its focus.

For Kanamaru, the victory was best summed up by looking at the opening 20 minutes. “We played very well in the first half,” he said, adding that the SeaHorses had better overall passing in the series finale as well.

Lakestars 74, Hannaryz 72

In Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, the Lakestars avenged their Saturday defeat against Kansai rival Kyoto.

Narito Namizato (16 points, five assists) and D’or Fischer (12 points, seven rebounds, six assists) delivered big performances for Shiga (18-33).

Joshua Smith notched a double-double with 20 points and 15 rebounds for the Hannaryz (31-20), as did Marcus Dove with 11 points and 14 boards and Tatsuya Ito with 13 points and 11 assists. Masaharu Kataoka also poured in 13 points.

Golden Kings 79, Brave Thunders 77 (OT)

In Okinawa City, sharpshooter Ryuichi Kishimoto completed a banner performance by knocking down a go-ahead 3-pointer with 20 seconds left in overtime, leading Ryukyu to a bounce-back win over Kawasaki.

Kishimoto scored 32 points, including 7 of 14 from 3-point range. Hassan Martin finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds for the Golden Kings (39-12).

Nick Fazekas had 27 points for the Brave Thunders (34-17) and Josh Davis and Naoki Uto both scored 13.

Evessa 62, Susanoo Magic 55

In Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, Xavier Gibson’s 14-point, 12-rebound effort helped Osaka complete a series sweep on the road.

Hiroyuki Kinoshita contributed eight points for the Evessa (19-32) in a low-scoring contest.

Gyno Pomare paced Shimane (8-43) with 22 points and 14 rebounds and Takuya Soma scored 10 points.

Grouses 81, NeoPhoenix 72

In Toyama, the Grouses outscored San-en 21-5 in the fourth quarter and salvaged a split of their weekend series.

Naoki Uto led Toyama (22-29) with 26 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Teammate Yuto Otsuka had 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting, Clint Chapman finished with 15 points and nine boards and Sam Willard added seven points and 11 rebounds.

Wendell White scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds for the NeoPhoenix (23-28) and Atsuya Ota chipped in with 11 points.

Levanga 83, Brex 77

In Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, Hokkaido finished strong to secure a bounce-back triumph over the hosts.

The Levanga put 27 points on the board in the fourth quarter and held the Brex to 18.

Daniel Miller scored 15 points, including 5-for-5 shooting from the field, and Dijon Thompson added 14 points and nine rebounds for Hokkaido (25-26). Ryota Sakurai and Asahi Tajima contributed 10 points apiece, with Tajima also dishing out six assists.

Jeff Gibbs finished with 25 points and eight rebounds for Tochigi (28-23) and Ryan Rossiter had 17 points and eight boards.

Sunrockers 79, Alvark 72

In Tokyo, Robert Sacre had a game-high 26 points and Leo Vendrame provided 20 points and five assists as Shibuya picked up a victory over the visitors.

Going 1-1 over the weekend, the Sunrockers (24-27) also received a spark from Kenta Hirose, who had seven points and four steals. Josh Harrellson added nine points and 10 rebounds.

Alex Kirk led the Alvark (37-14) with 20 points and eight boards. Daiki Tanaka had 26 points and five assists and Joji Takeuchi scored 10 points.

Tokyo struggled at the foul line (19 of 30).

B-Corsairs 89, Storks 80

In Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, Takuya Kawamura led a balanced offensive attack with 22 points and five assists as Yokohama routed Nishinomiya and recorded a series sweep.

William McDonald contributed 19 points and Masayuki Kabaya was 6-for-6 from the field in a 15-point afternoon. Jeff Parmer had 14 points and Kenji Yamada dished out eight assists for the B-Corsairs (15-36).

Yu Okada scored 19 points and Noriaki Dohara had 18 for the Storks (9-42).

Diamond Dolphins 82, Albirex BB 74

In Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, Nagoya overcame a 14-point deficit entering the second quarter, storming back in the second half to claim a weekend split against the hosts.

Justin Burrell had a team-high 23 points for the Diamond Dolphins (25-26) and Takaya Sasayama and Tenketsu Harimoto added 20 and 18, respectively.

Davante Gardner scored 22 points and corralled nine rebounds for Niigata (22-29), while Kei Igarashi had 18 points and five assists.

Second-division update

Here are the results of Sunday’s B2 games:

Wyverns 64, Five Arrows 56

Fighting Eagles 84, Samuraiz 79

Dragonflies 83, Orange Vikings 64

Wat’s 86, Firebonds 83

89ers 81, Big Bulls 79

Robots 72, Brave Warriors 62

Rizing Zephyr 90, Crane Thunders 85

Earthfriends 94, Volters 75

Northern Happinets 83, Bambitious 68