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Monday, Jan. 24, 2011

BJ-LEAGUE

Lottich gives West dramatic late victory in bj-league All-Star Game


Staff writer

OSAKA — The bj-league's first dynasty staged a reunion of sorts at the 2010-11 All-Star Game. Current and former Osaka Evessa standouts played prominent roles in the down-to-the-wire contest.

Ex-Evessa star Matt Lottich, now a lead guard for the Oita HeatDevils, gave the Western Conference the win on a dramatic last-second tip-in shot in a thrilling 110-109 triumph over the Eastern Conference at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium on Sunday.

"It was a great game," said Osaka's Lynn Washington, the game MVP, who finished with 18 points and eight rebounds. He scored 11 of his points in the fourth quarter to spearhead the West's comeback, which began in earnest early in the third after falling behind by 14 points on Sendai 89ers forward Mike Bell's basket.

"It was the best All-Star Game in bj-league history," he declared. "It was a storybook ending."

"It was a great experience," Lottich said.

Other ex-Evessa players sporting the West's uniform included Shiga Lakestars guard Masashi Joho (11 points), Shiga swingman Mikey Marshall (nine points), Takamatsu Five Arrows guard Satoshi Takeda (six points) and Ryukyu Golden Kings center Jeff Newton (four points).

Washington noted several West players were worthy of game MVP honors, including Rizing Fukuoka forward Michael Parker, who had a game-high 21 points (and 9-for-9 shooting from 2-point range), Evessa forward Billy Knight, who nailed a go-ahead 3-pointer with 27 seconds to play (that gave the West a 108-107 lead). Knight chipped in with 13 points and five rebounds in 9:53.

But Niigata Albirex BB center Julius Ashby's inside bucket put the East ahead 109-108 with 12 seconds remaining.

First-year Evessa coach Ryan Blackwell, who has guided the club to the West's best record (17-9) entering the All-Star break, called a timeout with 10 seconds left to draw up a final play. He opted to run a pick-and-roll with Washington and point guard Takumi Ishizaki of the Shimane Susanoo Magic.

Ishizaki's shot was off the mark with 2 seconds remaining.

Lottich grabbed an offensive rebound, hit the floor and quickly elevated himself before converting the game's decisive points.

"I like the ball at the end of the game," the Stanford University product said. "It wasn't a typical move that I'm used to making, getting an offense rebound (and the putback), but I'll take it."

"They kind of went to Cohey down the stretch and we had collectively got it done," were the words Lottich used to describe the final outcome.

For Blackwell, trusting his veteran players paid off.

"I knew their competitive spirits would take over," he said, "especially with Lynn being the leader that he is. (Kyoto's) Wendell (White), Mikey Marshal, and Michael Parker did a good job of bringing us back in the third quarter.

"They gave us spark, energy and defense. . . . That was really big for us."

The bj-league staged its first-All-Star Game in 2007 in Okinawa, with high-scoring contests being the norm.

But defense was a trademark of the Evessa's three title-winning teams and Washington challenged the West's All-Stars to make defense a greater priority after the halftime show. Blackwell reiterated the same message.

Tokyo Apache guard Cohey Aoki, the lone five-time All-Star starter, was named the game's Most Impressive Player, an award issued to the top player on the losing club.

Aoki had a team-best 18 points, including 4-for-5 from 3-point range. Niigata center Julius Ashby scored 15, Hamamatsu's Wayne Arnold scored 14 and Bell and Toyama's Brian Harper each had 12.

Aoki, too, characterized the game as "a very dramatic finish." In a cheerful chat with reporters, he said he was in awe of seeing such a big gathering of great players, players who have won multiple championships.

"It was a bit intimidating at first," he said. "But we managed to settle down."

Aoki's final 3-pointer gave the East a 103-101 lead with 2:17 left, a play that reminded the fans about East bench boss and Tokyo coach Bob Hill's trust in his veteran perimeter marksman.

"That was absolutely a scripted play," Hill said of Aoki's clutch 3.

The East increased the margin to 105-101 on a pair of Bell free throws. Then Ishizaki drove to the hoop and scored, cutting it to two with 1:20 to play. Ashby sank two free throws to make it 107-103 seconds later, and then Washington, living up to his reputation, made a basket, on a tip-in, to make it a one-possession game.

Despite the loss, Hill, the first former NBA head coach to run a bj-league team, dwelled on the positives.

"The 3-Point (Contest) was good, the (Slam) Dunk (Contest ) was good, the game was good. It was a good day for the bj-league. It was a good day for basketball in Japan. It really was, yeah for basketball in Japan today."

The East trailed 26-24 after a spirited first quarter, then its offense got on target in the second quarter as Hill's squad took a 63-53 advantage into the locker room at halftime.

Saitama Broncos forward Kazuya Hatano, another former Evessa player, had eight of his 12 points in the second quarter, while sharpshooter Arnold also had eight points in the period, followed by seven apiece from Hamamatsu's Jeffrey Parmer and Aoki.

Halftime adjustments helped the West.

"I really liked how our team kind of made some adjustments at halftime," Lottich said. "We said, 'Hey, we're losing by 10, we're not playing that hard, let's get more competitive.' We came out a little harder and it was a surprisingly hard-played All-Star Game. We were very fortunate to come out of here with a win."

Said Washington: "We just knew we had to come out and play better defense, and we did that in the third quarter."

"We had to close out on their shooters," he added, noting the effectiveness of Arnold, Parmer and Aoki.

Which paved the way for a dramatic finish.

"I enjoyed every second of it," Harper said nearly an hour after the final shot was taken.

It was the perfect reminder of the value All-Star Games have in attracting new fans and strengthening bonds with a league's core fan base.



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