Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture – The Utsunomiya Brex made sure to remind everyone that they are the best team in the league this season with a sweep of the Kawasaki Brave Thunders in the B. League playoff semifinals this past weekend.
Even though the Brex posted the B1’s top winning percentage (.817) after going 49-11, they entered the best-of-three home series as the challengers in a sense. The Brex were just 1-3 versus the Brave Thunders during the regular season and also lost their matchup in the Emperor’s Cup final in March.
In the postseason, however, the Brex responded better than many thought they would against Kawasaki, which had been viewed as a title contender since late in the season.
The Brex completely overwhelmed the Brave Thunders on both ends of the floor in the two victories.
Utsunomiya outdid Kawasaki 39-16 on the offensive glass during the series and had a 40-20 edge in second-chance points, a display of how relentless they were around the basket.
Most of the Brex’s offensive rebounds were grabbed by their forwards and centers — Josh Scott, Ryan Rossiter, Jeff Gibbs and Kosuke Takeuchi — and their efforts on the glass and in chasing down loose balls left even head coach Ryuzo Anzai in awe.
“We’ve been good at rebounding and our players are usually as aware of that as any other team,” Anzai said after Saturday’s 96-78 win in Game 2 at Brex Arena. “But our bigs — Jeff, Ryan, Josh and Kosuke — were phenomenal even to me. They were extremely persistent in yesterday’s game (on Saturday, when the team had 25 offensive rebounds) and I was impressed by them.
“I think you have to have a knack for rebounding, but at the same time, I think their mindset to want to win by any means made them work as hard as they did.”
Among the B. League’s elite teams, Utsunomiya is probably the most cohesive unit, with playing time spread out and little reliance on particular star players.
“Like yesterday, we entered the game with energy, and no matter who we had on the floor, we were able to play the way we wanted for the entire 40 minutes,” Brex guard Yusuke Endo said after Game 2.
Anzai said he was looking forward to facing Kawasaki in the playoffs because he wanted revenge for the earlier losses. The players, though, were not necessarily after vengeance and kept their focus on the ultimate goal of winning the title.
Rossiter said after Utsunomiya’s 68-65 win in Game 1 that it did not matter who they were playing and that he just did the best he could to help his team in the win-or-go-home postseason.
“It’s a championship,” Rossiter said when asked if he was motivated by the chance to earn some payback against Kawasaki. “Obviously, we lost (to Kawasaki) in the regular season, so there’s a lot to learn. But if you need motivation or need some sort of chip on your shoulder, you probably shouldn’t be playing the game.
“The point of the game is to win the championship. If the championship doesn’t get you excited enough, you’re in the wrong sport.”
The Brex will play for the title in the best-of-three B. League Finals, which begin Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Brave Thunders’ hopes of a first B. League championship came to a pitiful end with the Brex again standing tall in front of them.
The Brex beat the Brave Thunders in the championship game at Yoyogi National Gymnasium in the league’s inaugural 2016-17 season. Utsunomiya then dominated Kawasaki in a series sweep in the first round of the 2018-19 playoffs.
Kawasaki point guard and captain Ryusei Shinoyama said after Game 1 that the devastating loss to Utsunomiya two years ago was “the starting point” of the club’s rebuild.
“We were shown the film of our losses here two years ago,” Shinoyama said. “And we were told that we need to beat this team in order to become the best in the country. We’ve come here to show how much development we’ve made in these two years.”
Instead, they ended up facing another harsh reality.
Kawasaki sharp shooter Naoto Tsuji said that the team established a special bond throughout the season that fueled its success. But when it comes to winning when they need to, he stated there is room to improve for next year.
“We’ve had so many ups and downs but we could say whatever we wanted to say with each other from the bottom of our heart for the first time, and it helped us to come up with the positive outcomes and gave us confidence,” the ninth-year player said. “But we have to be better in bouncing back from tough situations during games.”
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