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Friday, May 8, 2009

Newton, Golden Kings sweep Rizing, lock up berth in Final Four

Staff writer

During a typical conversation with reporters, Ryukyu Golden Kings coach Dai Oketani blurts out the words "defense" and "rebounding" about as often as Barack Obama spoke about change before he was elected as the U.S. president last November.

Thus, it shouldn't be a surprise that the bj-league's best team during the 2008-09 season has placed a great deal of importance on those two aspects of basketball.

And it shouldn't be shocking that the Golden Kings won for the 10th time in as many games against the Rizing Fukuoka this season, picking up a 70-59 victory in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals on Wednesday in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture.

The win propels Oketani's club to a Final Four showdown against the three-time defending champion Osaka Evessa on May 16 at Ariake Colosseum.

In the series opener on Tuesday, Ryukyu center Jeff Newton pulled down 26 rebounds in a 76-69 victory. He grabbed a game-high 17 boards and was one of four double-digit scorers (10 points) for the Golden Kings in the series finale.

Backup forward Bryan Simpson, who previously played basketball while serving in the U.S. Air Force (Kadena Air Base, Okinawa Prefecture), scored a team-best 16 points and had 11 rebounds for the Golden Kings.

Shigeyuki Kinjo and Chris Ayer added 15 points apiece. Ayer also hauled in 10 boards.

"In the playoffs, defense and rebounds are the keys to winning," Oketani declared in a postgame interview.

Oketani, the bj-league's 2008-09 Coach of the Year, praised the way Newton led his teammates to victory in the conference semifinals. His contributions and leadership were incredibly valuable, the coach added.

The Golden Kings (43-11) trailed 20-16 after one quarter. Fukuoka's Trenton Drafts knocked down three 3-pointers in the opening quarter.

Rizing coach John Neumann's club held a 29-27 advantage at halftime.

Ryukyu used a 12-3 run to pull ahead 39-32 with 6:14 to play in the third. Kinjo scored eight points during the spurt, including a 3-pointer that prompted Neumann to call a 60-second timeout at the 6:11 mark.

After three quarters, the Golden Kings were in the driver's seat, holding a 50-45 lead.

Fukuoka cut the lead to 58-53 on Kohei Mitomo's 3-pointer wit 4:51 to play in the fourth. But, as it has done time after time this season, Oketani's club answered with a victory-clinching 12-2 run — it started with a pair of free throws from Yosuke Sugawara, a former Waseda University and Rera Kamuy (JBL) player — that was capped by a Simpson basket. That made it 70-55 with 2 minutes left in the game.

"Of course, probably our guys have a different feeling and motivation for the playoffs," Oketani said, "and some may be nervous . . . But everyone was on the same page, aiming for the same goal.

"So there were some struggles, but our team base — defense and rebounding — was solid, and we shared the ball very well."

Indeed, Oketani's team has had an amazing season, producing the greatest turnaround in the bj-league's short history. The team went 10-34 as an expansion franchise in 2007-08 and is now two wins away from a title.

Credit the team's tenacity and commitment to fundamental as keys to victory.

Or as Newton put it: "I thought we fought hard against Fukuoka. We struggled offensively the whole weekend, but we continued to fight on defense and battle on the (boards). That just showed in our fight and determination."

Newton, who played for Indiana University's 2002 NCAA Final Four team and on the Evessa's 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08 title teams, now adds a fifth Final Four appearance to his busy 21st century hoop resume. There's something about postseason basketball that brings out the best in Newton and his teammates, even if they are struggling.

Consider: A day after Kinjo shot 3-for-13 from 3-point range and finished with 17 points, the Golden Kings relied on their top perimeter shooter to play a vital role again on offense in Game 2.

In turn, his teammates showed their faith in him by repeatedly dishing the ball to him and setting screens to free him up for open looks.

"Yesterday, he had an off-night," Newton said of Kinjo, who was 6-for-12 from the field on Wednesday. "We just encouraged him to keep shooting because he's our shooter."

Point guard Naoto Takushi, the Golden Kings' first-ever draft pick (No. 1 overall in the 2007 bj-league draft), handed out five assists and Anthony McHenry and Kinjo had four assists apiece. Sugawara finished with eight points and five rebounds.

"Those guys, they came up big for us," said Newton, the 2008-09 bj-league MVP of his team's backups, citing bench play as one of the chief reasons the team won 41 regular-season games. "They've been coming up big for us all season."

For the second-year Rizing, who knocked off the Takamatsu Five Arrows in the Western Conference's wild-card round last season, Drafts was the top scorer with 14 points, followed by Marlyn Bryant (13 points) and Tsuyoshi Kawazura (11).

Including the pair of playoff losses, Fukuoka went 22-32 this season.

Michael Parker, who led the bj-league with 26.8 points per game during the regular season, was unable to play in the series due to a knee injury sustained late in the season.

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