YOKOHAMA – In a hard-fought battle, the Toyama Grouses came through in the final minute to beat the Kumamoto Volters 88-85 in the B. League promotion/relegation playoff game at Yokohama Arena on Sunday evening.
With the result, the Grouses and Volters remained in the first and second divisions, respectively.
Grouses forward Sam Willard hit a jumper with 35 seconds left to give his team a three-point lead and ace guard Naoki Uto sank three of the four free throws he had with less than 21 seconds left to seal the victory.
The Volters gave Toyama foul trouble yet were not able to capitalize and earn the win. Three Grouses players fouled out.
Uto, a national team player, racked up a team-high 24 points and 12 assists to power the Grouses, who posted a 24-26 record to take fifth place in the Central Division in the 2017-18 regular season.
“It was a very tough game and we feel relieved to have come away with the win,” Uto said. “We feel the top division is where we need to be and we were determined to make it happen. So it feels great to have won.”
For Kumamoto, which finished the second-division season with a 41-19 record, big man Ryota Nakanishi was the main offensive force and came up with 25 points, 11 of which came from free-throw shooting. The 29-year-old cleaned the boards eight times as well.
Toyama’s Serbian head coach, Miodrag Rajkovic, thanked the many Grouses fans who traveled to the game to give their support.
“The reason why we played good was because we felt like at home,” Rajkovic said. “Our fans gave us energy, so we really felt like at home.”
Volters shooting guard and captain Shintaro Kobayashi said that the Kyushu team wanted to give back to Kumamoto Prefecture, which suffered a massive earthquake two years ago, with the win.
“We’ve really felt that our team has strong ties with the people there, and that made it possible for us to come this far,” said Kobayashi, a Kumamoto native. “Today, we saw that our fans rooted for us as loud as they could, and it made us realize what we’ve done wasn’t wrong. There is no other way for a professional team to give back (to the fans) than by winning. So it’s disappointing that we couldn’t overcome the three-point difference in the end.”
In the second division/third division promotion/relegation contest, the Tokyo Hachioji Trains gained promotion with an 83-55 win over the Iwate Big Bulls.
Five players scored in double digits for the Trains, who were founded in 2012.
Center Alexander Jones had a game-high 17 points. He also grabbed nine rebounds, tying for the most on the team.
“Now we’re going up to B2 (the second division),” Hachioji head coach Takatoshi Ishibashi said. “And we would eventually like to build a team that can compete for the championship in B1.”
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