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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hannaryz take down Lakestars in bj-league Western Conference playoff series opening game


OTSU — Pro basketball's growth in Japan is not occurring as rapidly as the J. League's ascent to prominence, but that doesn't mean that regional rivalries are not creating growing interest for basketball.

Case in point: The Shiga Lakestars vs. Kyoto Hannaryz, rivals since 2009, provide a heated contest whenever the teams suit up against one another.

The Kansai rivals entered Saturday's game with a combined two playoff games in their brief history, but added a new chapter to their fierce rivalry in Game 1 of the bj-league's Western Conference playoff series.

The series opener went to Kyoto, 88-80, as the team's consistent play proved to be the biggest difference.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's 3-pointer put Kyoto ahead 72-59 early in the fourth. Shiga then pulled within 74-66, but Hikaru Kusaka pushed the lead back to 10 on a rainbow jumper at Shiga Prefectural Gymnasium.

The Hannaryz's inside strength paid off in the paint led by Reggie Warren (14 points, 14 rebounds), Michael Fey (15 points) and Kibwe Trim (17 points, nine boards).

Shiga had 28 offensive boards, but a 4-for-22 effort on 3-point shots negated this extra energy.

For Kyoto, Trim's layup appeared to seal the win with 5:22 remaining, giving the visitors an 80-66 lead.

Ex-NBA guard Abdul-Rauf's picture-perfect jumper from the left wing, aided by a pure shooter's bounce, as the ball went off the rim, up and then through the cylinder, made it 84-74 with 1:51 to play. Abdul-Rauf finished with 14 points in 24-plus methodical minutes.

But scrappy Shiga showed guts and sprung back to life in crunch time. Masashi Joho sank two free throws and forward Lamar Rice's basket pulled Shiga to within 84-76 with 1:04 left.

Abdul-Rauf then drained two free throws as the lead extended to eight. Rice's 3 missed its target and the Lakestars' hopes were fading in the closing minute.

Gary Hamilton paced the Lakestars with a game-best 25 points with 16 rebounds, four steals and three assists. Yu Okada added 15 points, Marshall scored 12, but was 2-for-16 from the field and Rice had nine on 3-for-12 shooting.

Shiga entered the game with four straight wins and a 4-2 record against Kyoto, and an electric atmosphere greeted them as they held their first-ever home playoff game. Game 7 added a new layer of intrigue to the rivalry, as Hirokazu Nema coached his first playoff game for Shiga; Kyoto's Kazuto Aono achieved the same distinction on Saturday.

"We looked nervous out there," Nema said later, speaking of the team's playoff jitters. "We have to play hard, play aggressive and relax tomorrow."

Both teams quickly got their offense into gear, combining for 19 points in the game's first three minutes, and Lakestars forward Hamilton's 3-point play knotted the score at 12-12 at the 5:53 mark. Rice's spot-up jumper tied it at 14-14.

Reserve guard Okada, a fan favorite in his native Shiga Prefecture, flushed a 3-pointer for the final points of the opening quarter to give the hosts a 23-20 lead.

The first quarter featured six ties and neither team led by more than three points in the first stanza.

Hikaru Kusaka, playing the season's final months for the Hannaryz after the Sendai 89ers season ended due to the March 11 earthquake, scored Kyoto's first four points of the second quarter, sinking four free throws in succession. Kusaka, sporting jersey No. 89, nailed a baseline jumper moments later as the out-of-towners extended their lead to 34-28. Kusaka added 12 big points off the bench.

Kyoto's bench outscored Shiga's 37-22, a key factor in the victory, Nema said.

Nema added that his players' aggressive defense on Marshall was impressive on the night, noting the standout's shooting numbers were not typical.

Giving Fey a start in the frontcourt — he came off the bench in 21 of 41 regular-season games, also paid off for Kyoto, as the big fellow maximized his minutes (17:44) with hard-nosed play.

Aono said Fey's basketball smarts factored into that decision. "He's a super athlete," the coach said. "It was an important matchup for us in a postseason game."

In the confidence-building second quarter for the visitors, guard Naoto Nakamura, a playoff veteran from the Osaka Evessa's championship dynasty, made a 3 as the Hannaryz's 15-6 spurt brought the offense to a full throttle. Fey then swished a long jumper, prompting Nema to ask for a timeout as the scoreboard showed the following: Kyoto 39, Shiga 31 with 5:57 before intermission.

The Hannaryz led by as many as 12 points in the quarter, but Takamichi Fujiwara's hotly contested, in-traffic layup cut it to 49-41 just before halftime.

Nakamura had seven points in the second quarter as Kyoto's offense found its rhythm. Aono praised his mental toughness and composure, saying his relaxed demeanor helped the team stay focused in the opener.

Hannaryz guard Kyosuke Setoyama, one of the bj-league's underrated floor leaders, chipped in with nine assists against two turnovers in the win.



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