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Sunday, April 22, 2007

BJ-LEAGUE

Five Arrows down Albirex in semifinal


Staff writer

The regular season was no fluke.

The Takamatsu Five Arrows won three of four regular-season games against the Niigata Albirex BB, and they did it again on Saturday, topping the 2005-06 league runnerup 79-67 in the day's second semifinal.

In a game that meant the difference between competing for the bj-league championship and playing for third place on Sunday, the expansion Five Arrows excelled under the spotlight.

Both teams were 25-15 in the regular season.

When it was over, Five Arrows coach Motofumi Aoki was equally excited and relieved to now be in position to play for the title.

"These last three weeks we have been practicing, focusing only on Niigata," he said. "I'm glad we won today."

Rookie shooting guard Yu Okada, The Japan Times Japanese MVP, scored 23 points to lead all players. (Center Julius Ashby added 17 points, six rebounds and five blocked shots, while power forward Reggie Warren scored 13 and cleared nine boards. Kazuyuki Nakagawa had 11 points and five assists and Rasheed Sparks, The Japan Times 2006-07 regular-season MVP, contributed 10 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, one steal and three blocks in 36 pulsating minutes.

"We knew they couldn't guard us one-on-one," Ashby said, still exuding confidence moments after the game, "because we all can score."

Said Okada: "I realize to win one game is really difficult, but we are an expansion team and are the challengers." He added that he personally exceeded other people's expectations for him in the semifinal.

The three-week layoff gave the Five Arrows a chance to concoct a plan to beat the Albirex.

"Niigata's defense is very good, so we tried to have great screens and also we made some new plays," Aoki said.

"Our offense is not always stable, but Okada played good from the first quarter. During the regular season, we normally had Ashby guarding Nick Davis and he often fell into foul trouble, so before the game I told him not to watch out about fouls."

The Five Arrows, who appeared relaxed during the game, Aoki observed, used a 15-4 fourth-quarter spurt to force their way into the title game. Hiroyuki Kikuchi added a nifty reverse layup to push the lead to 67-56. Okada's layup off a steal accounted for the runs final two points, which boosted the lead to 74-60.

Takamatsu led 65-56 with 3:01 remaining as Sparks' 3-pointer gave the Five Arrows what was then their biggest lead of the quarter. Seconds earlier, Davis, who had 19 points and 26 rebounds, missed his third and fourth straight free throws (five if you count a lane violation). Niigata shot an atrocious 3-for-15 from the free-throw line. Takamatsu was 15-for-25.

The Five Arrows closed out the first quarter on a 12-4 run, taking a 24-17 lead into the second quarter.

In one stretch which showcased their 3-point shooting prowess, five of the Albirex's six field goals came from 3-point range two from Antoni Wyche and one apiece from Matt Garrison, Naoto Kosuge and Takamichi Fujiwara. That made it 34-30 for Niigata with 1:59 left in the second quarter.

Takamatsu took a 36-34 advantage into the second half.

Niigata, however, pulled ahead 39-34 on its first possession of the half on Wyche's 3-pointer.

After the game, Albirex coach Masaya Hirose reacted to the loss this way:

"I wanted to put the pressure on the opponent from the beginning, and our players lived up to the instructions well. The players played well. We feel really sorry for the boosters who came out all the way to Tokyo, but whatever I say it is an excuse. . . . What I can say for sure is that we'll do our best tomorrow."

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.



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