Ace scorer Davante Gardner secured the ball that was shot by Kawasaki’s Ryusei Shinoyama, ran out of the paint area and threw it high — really high — into the air just before the buzzer sounded.

That was the dramatic moment when the Niigata Albirex BB defeated their division rival Brave Thunders 80-78 and, more importantly, clinched the B. League Central Division crown at Todoroki Arena on Saturday night.

The Albirex, who now have the third-best record in the league at 43-15, will be able to play at home in the first and second rounds of the playoffs. Niigata will host the Alvark Tokyo in the first round, which begins April 27.

Basketball coaches are the kinds of people who are never satisfied with how their teams play. But after winning the game and division title, Albirex BB head coach Kazuhiro Shoji sounded emotional when he declared, “We executed what we’d prepared for in this game almost perfectly today.”

The Albirex have been one of the league’s biggest surprises this year. After two consecutive years with losing records (27-33 in the 2016-17 season and 28-32 last year), no one really expected them to make the strides they have.

Niigata’s veteran point guard Kei Igarashi said after the game that the team was able to avenge the chip it had on its shoulder.

“Everybody thought that it was impossible for us to win because we have too many veteran players and things like that,” said the 38-year-old, who came to the club in 2016.

Niigata had acquired a former Japan Basketball League MVP in Shinsuke Kashiwagi ahead of this season, but nobody considered it a significant move because of his age. That there were no other major additions to the squad only fueled doubts about the team.

“But once the season started and we played the way we did to earn a berth in the Championship (the playoffs), which was our goal, our players felt we could do it,” Igarashi said. “Then played even better as a team and communicated with each other better. And ultimately, we got used to winning. That’s what led us to the division championship.”

The Albirex have improved their defense from 81.4 points allowed per game last season to 73.1 this year, which has powered the run they’ve made.

But the 44-year-old Shoji said his team hasn’t installed any new systems.

Both he and Igarashi agree that the mental growth of the team has a lot to do with its success during this campaign.

“We didn’t change our offensive and defensive systems,” Shoji said. “But in terms of the intensity and mindset, we did change. Every member of our team has tried to do his own job the right way. Before, there were excuses when things didn’t go well. Now, they look at themselves (to take responsibility) instead of looking for excuses. They have become harder on themselves in order to play as a team.”

As evidence of their progress, the Albirex competed on Saturday without Kashiwagi, who was suspended after his ejection from the team’s previous game against the Toyama Grouses.

Shoji insisted his team, including younger players like 23-year-old backup point guard Kenta Morii, raised its level to overcome the absence of the 37-year-old guard, who has provided valuable leadership and experience in a starting role.

“Everyone stepped up,” the bench boss said of Saturday’s game. “Everyone battled and was on the same page. I don’t have a better explanation than that.”

Shoji and Igarashi have personally been around Japanese basketball for a long time, but neither had captured a title before Saturday.

“I played for a long time, but I never experienced a championship,” said Shoji, a former two-time JBL MVP. “I was with (Albirex) when it was formed (in 2000) and was even a captain. Back in those days, Kawasaki (formerly known as the Toshiba Brave Thunders) wasn’t a team we were on par with. So I wanted to repay Albirex as much as I could.”

Igarashi, who has played for four different top-league teams, as well as the national team, said: “This is the first title that I’ve won, so I’m excited.”

Having entered the season with a goal of making the postseason, Niigata, which has won its last eight games, now has its sights set on making a deep run in the playoffs.

“Our next goal is to keep winning in the Championship, and ultimately win the league title,” said Igarashi, a Niigata Prefecture native. “We’ll start aiming at our new goal from tomorrow.”

Niigata will conclude its regular season with a two-game series against the Yokohama B-Corsairs this weekend at City Hall Plaza Aore Nagaoka.

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