YOKOHAMA – The Kawasaki Brave Thunders and Utsunomiya Brex, who were formerly known as the Tochigi Brex, combined for 89 victories in 120 games last season.
So it was no surprise that both teams played a scrappy, intense game to usher in the B. League’s fourth season on Thursday night at Yokohama Arena. But the 2019-20 regular-season opener was ultimately decided by offensive consistency.
The Brave Thunders knocked down shots on a consistent basis over the final 20 minutes and pulled away with a dominant fourth quarter en route to a 78-57 victory.
Kawasaki made new head coach Kenji Sato a winner in his first official game at the helm.
The Brave Thunders outscored the Brex 24-12 in the fourth quarter. Sato’s squad made 10 of 15 shots from the field in the fourth, getting baskets from eight different players in that span.
At the same time, the Utsunomiya offense fell apart in the final stanza. The Brex missed 12 of 16 shots and turned the ball over six times in the last 10 minutes.
Brex coach Ryuzo Anzai credited his opponent for playing hard-nosed defense and also noted that the team is working on its offensive spacing, something that it can also focus on in upcoming games.
Nick Fazekas paced Kawasaki with 20 points and 15 rebounds. Captain and backcourt leader Ryusei Shinoyama poured in 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting, Yuma Fujii finished with 10 points and newcomer Mathias Calfani, a power forward, added 10 points and 12 boards, with Jordan Heath, another newcomer, providing eight points and 12 rebounds.
The Brave Thunders outrebounded the Brex 51-35.
“It’s a new season for us,” Fazekas said in a postgame news conference. “We’ve got a new coach and new faces. . . . It’s only one game in 60 but it’s something that we want to build on,”
Sato commended his players’ effort while speaking to reporters.
“I think that this season is a special season that binds the World Cup and Olympics. And we were given the privilege to play in this opening game, we wanted to play with high quality and high intensity, and I think we did that a little bit,” Sato said after the game. “Yet this is just the first game of 60. We are going to be able to raise Japanese basketball’s level by playing games like this, so hopefully we keep preparing so that we can play intense games like this.”
With under three minutes left in the third quarter in the low-scoring contest, Utsunomiya’s Kosuke Hashimoto brought his club within 47-43 on a jumper.
Then the Brave Thunders flicked the metaphorical switch on their offense, heating up at just the right time. They seized control to close out the third quarter and led 54-45 following a 3-pointer by Uruguayan veteran Calfani, entering the final quarter.
A Shinoyama 3-pointer made it 64-50. Moments later, a highlight-reel alley-oop, completed by Heath and initiated by Fazekas, extended the cushion to 68-50 with 3:34 remaining, putting the finishing touches on a tight duel that transformed into a runaway victory.
A smiling Shinoyama told reporters afterward that the victory’s “a good feeling” to open the season. He cited “40 minutes of high-energy defense” as a key to victory.
He added: “I got hurt (suffering a broken bone in his left toe during the FIBA World Cup), but I simply wanted to play with my teammates as soon as possible. I’m pleased that I was able to get in the team smoothly and contribute to the team . . .”
Calfani summed it up this way: “A good first game for us. We played very hard and good basketball. We stayed together. We played very fast and very smart.”
Frontcourt star Ryan Rossiter led the Brex with 20 points and 11 rebounds and Jeff Gibbs had 10 points and seven boards. Hironori Watanabe and Shuhei Kitagawa each scored six points. The Brex shot 23-for-77 (29.9 percent) from the floor, including 4 of 27 on 3s, with Yusuke Endo finishing 0-for-6.
After a glitzy pregame show with high-tech flashing lights, the title-chasing rivals got the show underway before an announced crowd of 9,514.
Defense was played at an intense level and nearly every shot was contested from the get-go.
Trailing 8-3 near the midway point of the first quarter, the Brex rallied to pull within 12-11 after a Kitagawa four-point play with 3:11 remaining in the opening period. Kitagawa sank a 3-pointer from the left corner and drew contact from Kawasaki’s Naoto Tsuji to earn a trip to the foul line.
Gibbs canned a jumper from the right baseline to cut it to 15-13 late in the first quarter, and that was also the same score entering the second quarter.
In the second quarter, Shinoyama converted a pair of back-to-back shots to fire up the Kanagawa Prefecture team’s spirited fans. First, he swished a nifty scoop shot with his back to the baseline, and after Endo made a traditional three-point play. Shinoyama then stepped up and drained a spot-up 3-pointer to put the hosts in front 24-19 near the 6:30 mark.
Utsunomiya rallied. Watanabe knocked down a big 3 from the right wing to cut it to 24-22. After Fazekas made the first of two foul shots, the Brex embarked on a 7-0 spurt, featuring two inside buckets from Gibbs, the second of which gave the Brex their first lead since they held a 3-2 advantage early. Watanabe buried another 3 to extend the lead to 29-25.
With one second left before the break, Heath made a layup on a pinpoint pass from Tsuji. Game officials reviewed the play to determine if the shot was taken before the buzzer sounded, and it was ruled good, giving Kawasaki a 33-31 halftime lead.
In the paint
The league’s other 16 B1 teams, including the two-time defending champion Alvark Tokyo, make their season debuts on Saturday. . . . Retired figure skater Takahiko Kozuka, now 30, was interviewed before the game while sitting in the stands. The brief interview appeared on the big screen monitors hanging above the court. Kozuka earned the men’s silver medal at the 2011 world championships. He spoke about his enjoyment in watching entertaining, high-paced games and also mentioned that the B. League has grown in popularity and become more recognizable within Japan’s sporting landscape.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report