Basketball / B. League | HOOP SCOOP

Ehime's Andrew Fitzgerald looks back on record-setting scoring performance

by Ed Odeven

Andrew Fitzgerald scored the Ehime Orange Vikings’ first two points on an outside jumper on Sunday, and never stopped scoring.

He had a career-high 55 points and pulled down 22 rebounds while playing all 40 minutes in Ehime’s bounce-back, 101-95 victory over the Fukushima Firebonds in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture. Fitzgerald broke the B. League second-division scoring record, eclipsing former Ehime forward Chehales Tapscott’s 50-point performance against the Aomori Wat’s on April 20, 2018. (Ryan Rossiter of the Tochigi Brex set the first-division scoring record on Dec. 8, pouring in 52 points against the Ryukyu Golden Kings.)

Yes, 50-20 games are remarkably rare. (Similarly, 50-30 games were the domain of all-time NBA great Wilt Chamberlain. The website basketball-reference.com lists nine occasions when it’s happened, all occurring in the 1960s by the one and only Wilt.)

And the totality of Fitzgerald’s imprint on Sunday’s game was special. He canned 23 of 38 shots from the field, with one 3-point attempt (a miss) in the box score. He also made 9 of 13 free throws.

Of his 22 rebounds, nine were snatched off the offensive glass. His efficiency rating of 62 was off the charts.

After one quarter, the University of Oklahoma product had 13 points on 6-for-8 shooting. By halftime, he had already scored 23, and the Orange Vikings trailed by one, 45-44.

In the third quarter, the 203-cm veteran added 12 more points. The score was tied 65-65 entering the fourth quarter.

And then Fitzgerald took over, putting 20 more points on the board.

So how special was Sunday’s game for him as a team leader?

“It was special because it was a solid team win for to us to build around,” Fitzgerald told Hoop Scoop on Monday. “I was not focusing on my numbers. I was just focusing on helping my team get a win.”

And it was fitting that the ball was in Fitzgerald’s hands for the final recorded statistic of the game: a defensive rebound with 4 seconds to play.

The victory raised Ehime’s record to 9-15. Coach Richard Glesmann’s team trails the Shimane Susanoo Magic and Hiroshima Dragonflies (both 16-8) and Kumamoto Volters (19-5) in the B. League second flight’s West Division standings.

Indeed, with 36 teams evenly split among the top two divisions in the B. League, the bulk of the media attention goes to top-flight teams. But that shouldn’t diminish the achievements of what numerous quality players and their teams accomplish in the second division, including Fitzgerald, who is in his fourth season playing in Japan.

Hoop Scoop also caught up with Ehime coach Rich Glesmann for some perspective on what Fitzgerald accomplished in the series finale against the Firebonds.

“Andrew was obviously awesome scoring 55 points,” Glesmann commented before adding, “His 55 points were a combination of him getting baskets in space and his teammates setting him up for good shots. Specifically using ball screens, our guys did a nice job delivering passes to Andrew for high-percentage shots.”

Fitzgerald, who turned 28 on Dec. 10, raised the bar for himself with Sunday’s masterpiece. But he conceded that 50 won’t be his new target the next time he steps onto the court.

“No, I’m not going to be focusing on scoring another 50 points,” he said. “It was just a special night to help my team out. My teammates were putting me in good positions to score. Our ball movement and spacing really helped us to score.”

Fitzgerald, a gifted mid-range shooter, elaborated on that point by commending the effort of forward Keisuke Takabatake, who scored 18 points, “which helped create opens lanes for me to drive and with my aggressiveness it created open shots for him.” He also noted that guard Taishi Kasahara made a profound impact with his 10 assists, but it wasn’t just the gaudy passing numbers that caught Fitzgerald’s eye.

“His aggressiveness attacking the rim and being a floor general helped us in many ways of getting that win on Sunday,” Fitzgerald said of Kasahara.

Some athletes demand attention by insisting that what they do in their respective sporting arenas is all about them — and only them — and specialize in narcissism.

Fitzgerald acts differently.

Looking back on Sunday’s game, he dished out this insight: “My teammates were excited for me and I was excited with them. They were a part of an experience. Some players have never seen a guy go for 50-plus points. However, our ball movement and unselfishness basketball helped us as a team.”

Fitzgerald was a dependable player during the first three seasons in Kanazawa Samuraiz franchise history. He averaged 16.3, 16.2 and 20.4 points per game in the 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, respectively, before joining Ehime.

He finished with 31 points (13 of 18 from the floor) and 13 boards in Saturday’s 97-78 defeat. Since Nov. 10, Fitzgerald has played in 10 games. He’s scored at least 30 points seven times, with 28 (twice) and 27 in the other contests.

The bearded 202-cm star leads B2 with 27.9 ppg and is sixth in rebounding (12.0).

“It means a lot to be known as one of the elite players in Japan,” said Fitzgerald, who averaged 9.0 points in 121 games for the University of Oklahoma (2009-13) before plying his craft in Poland, France and Japan.

Fitzgerald’s increased productivity of late is directly linked to the team’s style of play.

“Over the past nine games we have gone with almost an exclusively open-post style offense,” Glesmann said. “Over this span Andrew has been consistently going for 30-plus points per game.

“I don’t think a coach ever expects a player to go for 50-plus (points) in a game, however Andrew has been consistently scoring at such a high rate, and he is playing with unselfish teammates, so I’m actually not as surprised as people would initially think.”

The American bench boss also believes Sunday’s game was a bold reminder that Fitzgerald is “without a doubt one of the best players in B2.”

Glesmann continued: “His rebounding and defense continue to improve, which is huge for our team.”

Before the Orange Vikings shift their focus to preparing for the visiting Susanoo Magic this weekend in Matsuyama in an important intra-division series, Fitzgerald was happy to summarize his feelings about his career-best game.

“It’s a dream to score 50 points at any level of basketball,” he said. “The simple fact that I have done it means a lot to me.”

Clearly, he’s entered his prime as a player and elevated his game to a new level.

Physical skills and mental preparation and focus are the keys.

‘Yeah, I have definitely matured as a player in Japan,” Fitzgerald stated. “Adapting to the Japanese culture has really helped me as a player and a person.”

With Fitzgerald’s splendid performance carrying the Orange Vikings to a victory — their fifth in the past 10 games — Glesmann hopes it can be a springboard to a climb in the standings.

“I am not sure if this specific game will impact our future this season,” he offered. “(But) I like how we have been playing over the past month. I feel we are getting back to playing at the fastest pace in B2, which was vital for our winning season (33-27) last year. I think earlier this season I was holding our team back and not putting our players in the best position to play fast-paced Orange Vikings basketball.

“Despite playing a bunch of games with only one available (American) forward (Andrew), our players have showed major commitment to improve on a day-to-day basis,” the coach concluded. “Hopefully we can continue to improve because the B. League is a long season.”