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Saturday, Jan. 5, 2008

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

89ers, Evessa still on top


Staff writer

New Year's Day is history. The year is still quite new, though, and 2008 leaves us with the same story from last year: The Sendai 89ers and Osaka Evessa are still in first place in their respective divisions.

Now they'll look to build on their successes from the season's first two months in the first weekend of competition in January.

A full slate of games is on top this Saturday and Sunday.

The Toyama Grouses (1-15) play host to Saitama Broncos (6-8). The Broncos have played 10 of their first 14 games on the road, not exactly the type of schedule most players prefer.

But David Benoit's club can pull within a game of .500 with a weekend split, and that would be a significant accomplishment for any team with a first-year coach, especially one coming off back-to-back dreadful seasons.

The Evessa (11-3) take on the visiting Takamatsu Five Arrows (11-5) in a two-game clash of Western Conference powers.

The Five Arrows, who were the league runnerup to the Evessa last spring, lost both games in the teams' previous series in November in Osaka. (Oddly enough, the schedule-makers decided to have these teams meet again in Kansai this weekend; seems proper that the teams, especially ones with a great rivalry in the making, would alternate the venues, but that's not how it will occur this year. Instead the remainder of the games between the teams will be played in Takamatsu later this season.)

The rest of the schedule this weekend is as follows: Niigata Albirex BB (8-8) vs. Tokyo Apache (9-5); Oita HeatDevils (7-7) vs. Rizing Fukuoka (7-7); and Ryukyu Golden Kings (4-12) vs. Sendai (10-4).

ALL-STAR GAME FLASHBACK: Lost in the shuffle of Albirex guard Naoto Kosuge's MVP performance — he scored 31 and sank nine 3-pointers — for the East team in a 121-94 win over the West last Saturday was the woeful shooting performance by the losing team.

The West missed 30 of 33 3-point attempts. This included 0-for-6 efforts by Oita's Andy Ellis, the league's leading scorer, and Fukuoka's Joshua Peppers. Takamatsu's Yu Okada had a 2-for-7 outing from beyond the arc.

Sendai center Patrick Whearty, who had six points and six rebounds, paused from signing autographs in Toki Messe to reflect on the experience.

"I am happy. I made a few shots. I didn't go scoreless," he said. "I scored some, ran a little bit, got some exercise. Good."

Five Arrows center George Leach summed up the experience this way: "It's great. It was a great crowd (4,529 spectators) . . . It was a great experience for me, (and) now we know key guys on other teams.

"It's time to have fun, but now it is time to get back to work."

But before he began serious preparations for the Osaka trip, Leach had time to discuss the buildup to the Slam Dunk Contest. His teammate Rasheed Sparks defended his title.

"He's been practicing for two whole weeks on this Dunk Contest, so I am happy to see him get a win," Leach said.

Did Sparks speak about the Slam Dunk Contest in the days before the game?

"He was because that's like his claim to fame out here," Leach said.

THRILLING EXPERIENCE: For Niigata forward Rodney Webb, appearing in his first All-Star Game at any level, Saturday's extravaganza was an unforgettable one.

"I think I had a smile on the whole game, which is great," said Webb.

It didn't hurt, of course, that Kosuge received the MVP award and frontcourt mate Matt Garrison repeated as the 3-Point Shootout champion.



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