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Friday, March 21, 2008

BJ-LEAGUE NOTEBOOK

Albirex looking to continue dominance of Apache in key series


Staff writer

This weekend marks the Niigata Albirex BB's first trip to Ariake Colosseum during the 2007-08 season.

Coach Masaya Hirose's team has played the Tokyo Apache four times before its orange-clad, rowdy fans at home: Jan. 5-6 and Jan. 19-20, and Niigata is 4-0 against the Joe Bryant-coached club.

This weekend's Showdown in Kanto could prove to be a pivotal pair of games for both teams' playoff aspirations. Saturday's game tips off at 6 p.m. Sunday's matinee matchup commences at 2 p.m.

Niigata (23-13) sits a game behind the Eastern Conference's first-place club, the Sendai 89ers (24-14). Tokyo (20-16) is third and the Saitama Broncos (19-17) are fourth.

Each bj-league team plays eight more games before the start of the playoffs. The two conference champions automatically qualify for the semifinals. The No. 2 seeds in each conference face the third-place (wild-card) team for a berth into the semis.

Looking back at Niigata's success against Tokyo underscores the team's depth and overall strengths.

On Jan. 5, for instance, five Albirex players posted double-digit scoring games en route to a 100-85 victory.

Forward Matt Garrison's 33 points led the way. On the defensive end, Niigata held Tokyo to 3-for-16 shooting from 3-point range.

In an 89-80 triumph on Jan. 6, the Albirex outscored the Apache 25-13 in the final quarter.

Forward Rodney Webb had a team-best 31 points for Niigata.

Tokyo's Cohey Aoki scored 31 and Nick Davis 17, but the Albirex limited the other Apache players to nine points or less.

Now fast forward to Jan. 19, a game that Niigata won 96-84. Hirose's squad scored 70 points through three quarters while allowing only 54.

Niigata made 21 of 24 free throws in this win; Tokyo shot 14-for-26 from the line. Webb's 29 points led four players in double figures.

The Albirex completed their second home sweep of the Apache on Jan. 20, humiliating the out-of-towners 116-80.

Seven Niigata players put 10 or more points on the board: Andre Smith (26), Andrew Preston (25), Takamichi Fujiwara (13), Makoto Hasegawa and Webb (11 apiece) and Yuichi Ikeda and Garrison (10 apiece).

For the Albirex, the blowout victory also included a 57-37 rebounding margin and 65 second-half points to Tokyo's 45.

Free-throw shooting again played a decisive role in this game, too. Niigata converted on 30 of 35 attempts; Tokyo made 14 of 25.

After the game, Bryant used words that many coaches have stated since the league's inception in the fall of 2005.

"When we play at the homes of Niigata and Osaka, our players have to get tougher mentally," Bryant said.

The Albirex have a league-best 15-3 home record, but they are 8-10 on the road.

Regardless of where they play, balanced scoring has been a key ingredient in Niigata's success this season. Since playing his first game on Jan. 12, Smith has been the team's top scorer (17.3 points per game).

In addition, Webb's 17.2 ppg and Garrison's 15.3 have given Hirose consistent production at the top of the scoring charts, while Ikeda (9.4), Fujiwara (8.9), Preston (8.3) and Naoto Kosuge (6.3) have added scoring punch as well.

UP NEXT: In other games this weekend, the Oita HeatDevils (17-19) travel to face the Toyama Grouses (4-32), the Sendai 89ers visit the Saitama Broncos, the Takamatsu Five Arrows (24-12) make the trip to Okinawa to take on the Ryukyu Golden Kings (10-26) and the Rizing Fukuoka (13-23) challenge the Osaka Evessa (26-10) in Kansai.

In a recent interview, Evessa power forward Lynn Washington spoke about his desire to make his return from knee surgery for the team's final eight games. This means the 2005-06 league MVP could see playing time this weekend, his first minutes on the court since his injury on Nov. 18.



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