The Alvark Tokyo scratched and clawed their way to a third-place finish in the brutal East Division during the regular season. Forty-four wins in 60 games was what they accomplished.
Indeed, it wasn’t easy.
On Saturday, the resilient defending champions moved a step closer to achieving their goal: a second consecutive appearance in the B. League Championship final.
Coach Luka Pavicevic’s squad, seeded No. 7 in the eight-team postseason tournament, outplayed the Ryukyu Golden Kings in the decisive fourth quarter on Saturday afternoon, winning 67-57 in Game 1 of the best-of-three semifinal series in Okinawa City.
Game 3, if necessary, is scheduled for Tuesday.
The teams return to the hardwood for Sunday’s Game 2 at 1:05 p.m.
Starting center Alex Kirk energized the Alvark at both ends of the floor, scoring 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds (five offensive). Reserve forward Milko Bjelica supplied 16 points, Yudai Baba had 14 and five assists and Seiya Ando scored nine points and made two steals. Daiki Tanaka dished out six assists.Tokyo led 37-29 at halftime, then trailed 45-43 after three quarters.
The Alvark dominated over the final 10 minutes, outscoring the hosts 24-12 in that span.
“The game was really intense and the crowd/atmosphere was one of the best I have seen in Japan,” Kirk said in a post-game interview with The Japan Times. “I’m really proud of how hard we fought the whole game. No matter how we were making shots we kept playing strong and hard throughout.”
The Alvark shot 40.5 percent on 2-point attempts (17 of 42) and 6 of 16 from beyond the 3-point arc. They took 20 free throws (15 makes).
The assist-to-turnover ratio was significant, too. Tokyo had 17 assists and eight turnovers; Ryukyu had 13 assists and 15 turnovers.
Other noteworthy statistics from the game include points in the paint (Tokyo 22, Ryukyu 12) and fast-break points (a 7-1 edge for the Alvark).
“Tomorrow is going to be another huge battle,” declared Kirk, a University of New Mexico alum. “Okinawa is a great team and we are looking forward to battling with them again.”
Former NBA forward Jeff Ayres was the Kings’ lone double-digit scorer (17 points). Ira Brown had eight points and seven boards.
Veteran point guard Narito Namizato struggled. He finished with three assists and eight turnovers. Teammate Takatoshi Furukawa, a hero for the Tochigi Brex in the 2016-17 title-game triumph over the Kawasaki Brave Thunders, was held scoreless, going 0-for-7 in Game 1.
“We were able to win the semifinal Game 1 away as a result of the players fighting persistently until the end,” Pavicevic said after the game. “Although both teams were not perfect, we were able to play at a higher level on both defense and offense.
“However … the series is not over yet. I think that tomorrow will be a tougher game than today, so I want (us) to prepare well and fight.”
Jets 75, Brex 67
In Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, the East Division champions delivered a spirited defensive performance en route to victory in the series opener.
Tochigi was held to 35.9 percent shooting (26-for-73 from the field).
Five Jets players finished with at least one blocked shot: Gavin Edwards (two) and Josh Duncan, Michael Parker, Fumio Nishimura and Shuta Hara (one apiece).
Chiba held a 35-34 lead at halftime, then build a little bit of breathing room in the third quarter.
The Brex trailed 54-45 entering the final stanza.
Duncan, who came off the bench, had a team-high 14 points. Perimeter marksman Shigehiro Taguchi, also a backup, netted 13 points, making 3 of 4 3s. Parker, Nishimura and Edwards all scored 11 points, while Yuki Togashi had seven points and five assists.
Taguchi told reporters after the game that he had a good offensive rhythm in last weekend’s playoff series against the Toyama Grouses.
Togashi summed up the Jets’ performance as a good team effort that produced the win.
Jets coach Atsushi Ono cited rebounding as a key factor in the game.
“(Our) rebounding was really strong today,” the coach stated.
Chiba snared 49 rebounds and held Tochigi to 39.
With 11 and 10 rebounds, respectively, Edwards and Parker finished with double-doubles.
Makoto Hiejima and Hironori Watanabe scored 14 points apiece for the Brex. Seiji Ikaruga had 11 points on 5-for-17 shooting. Jeff Gibbs and Ryan Rossiter each scored nine points, with Gibbs pulling down 16 rebounds.
Brave Warriors 82, Crane Thunders 63
In Chikuma, Nagano Prefecture, Anthony McHenry’s 18-point, nine-rebound, six-assist effort and Yuta Osaki’s 16 points helped carry Shinshu past Gunma in the series opener.
Wayne Marshall poured in 12 points, Hiroaki Takei added 11 and Kaito Ishikawa dished out seven assists for the Central Division champion Brave Warriors.
Osaki canned 4 of 8 3-point attempts. Takei knocked down 3 of 4.
Thomas Kennedy paced Gunma with 22 points and Abdullahi Kuso finished with 12.
Susanoo Magic 91, Volters 88 (OT)
In Kumamoto, veteran center Gregory Echenique had a game-high 35 points, including two free throws with 7 seconds remaining in overtime, and 20 rebounds as Shimane outlasted the hosts in Game 1.
Echenique, whose college career featured stops at Rutgers and Creighton, was 10-for-10 from the field and sank 15 of 19 foul shots while playing all 45 minutes. He also dished out five assists.
Susanoo Magic teammate Rosco Allen contributed 17 points and 14 boards and rejected four shots while matching the big fellow’s assist total. Hiromu Kitagawa chipped in with 15 points and six helpers and Takuya Soma added 12 points for coach Yukinori Suzuki’s squad, while Kimitake Sato put eight points on the board.
Chehales Tapscott paced the Volters with 29 points and 11 rebounds. Josh Duinker had a 22-point game and Takumi Furuno provided 19 points and 11 assists.