SAITAMA – After achieving one of their goals for this season, the Sunrockers Shibuya are now moving on to shoot for the second: the B. League championship.
After capturing the team’s second All-Japan Championship title with a 78-73 win over the Kawasaki Brave Thunders at Saitama Super Arena on Sunday, Shibuya captain Leo Vendrame said it was “special” to achieve the feat with his Sunrockers teammates.
But the 26-year-old combo guard, who averaged 14 points and 4 assists over the final round’s three games, also insisted that the shining Emperor’s Cup was no guarantee of a B. League crown in May.
“It’s given us confidence for sure,” said Vendrame, who led the Sunrockers to their first All-Japan Championship title in five years and was named the tournament’s MVP. “But none of the teams that have won the Emperor’s Cup ended up winning the league title since the B. League started. But we will definitely compete hard in aiming for the league championship next.”
The Chiba Jets Funabashi have racked up the previous three titles in Japanese basketball’s winter classic, yet come up short in the league.
But at minimum, the Emperor’s Cup proved that the defensive-oriented style of basketball Shibuya has played all year can lead to success.
“Not just because we won it in this tournament, but we’ve had faith in our game since the beginning of the season. And we’ve built confidence in ourselves each game,” said the 183-cm player, who has averaged 11.5 points and 5.0 assists in the 2019-20 B. League campaign. “It’s great for us to come up with a result like this.”
Right now, Vendrame’s motivation is at an all-time high because of his desire to show that he is a top Japanese player.
Last summer, Vendrame failed to make Japan’s final roster for the FIBA World Cup, describing it as one of the biggest disappointments in his career.
Ironically, it was at Saitama Stadium, where after a series of pre-World Cup warmups he was told would not join the Akatsuki Five in China, that Vendrame lifted the Emperor’s Cup as tournament MVP.
“I even wept that time,” said Vendrame, who donned the Japan jersey during the final window of Asian qualifiers for the World Cup. “I kind of felt that I would not make it. But I was disappointed that I wasn’t good enough to be chosen.”
Vendrame’s current form is driven by his hunger to rejoin the Akatsuki Five for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
“That’s my motivation,” said Vendrame, who has played for the Sunrockers since the 2015-16 season when the team competed in the NBL. “That’s where I’m putting my goal at as a basketball player. It’s easy to give it up, but in order to be a better player, I’m playing aiming at it.”
The Sunrockers have notched a 19-9 record and are currently third in the B. League East Division, which is by far the most competitive of the league’s three conferences.
The Sunrockers are looking for their first-ever league title this season.