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Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012

Jets beat Two Three in Emperor's Cup debut

Staff writer

The Chiba Jets' defensive intensity picked up in the second half of Monday's Emperor's Cup game against club team Two Three. At the same time, the Jets starting making shots with regularity.

Two big runs fueled the Jets' strong second half in a runaway 99-68 victory over the Yamamguchi Prefecture-based squad at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.

The expansion Jets, under first-year coach Eric Gardow, became the first bj-league team to appear in an All-Japan Basketball Championship game, doing so in the 87th Emperor's Cup.

"It's a great opportunity for Japanese players to show their talents in a great atmosphere," said Chiba coach Eric Gardow, who previously coached pro ball in Qatar.

Chiba, which led 45-40 at halftime, had spurts of 14-0 and 16-0 and opened the second half by outscoring Two Three 40-12. That made it 85-57 after Shota Isshiki's baseline jumper late in the fourth quarter.

"Getting stops defensively and getting rebounds," were keys, Gardow told reporters. "More importantly, we got some easy transition baskets. (Lead guard) Maurice (Hargrow) got into a little rhythm there right off the bat in the third quarter, which was good for him. And that felt natural for us when he was in that position. That just really let us settle down a little bit. Our guys were nervous, excited, playing in the All-Japan (Championship). A lot of these guys grew up dreaming about this."

Forward Tomoya "Chomo" Nakamura, who has played in the bj-league since its establishment in 2005, was among the players fulfilling that dream. In fact, Nakamura had played in the Emperor's Cup eight years earlier while at Chuo University.

Nakamura said it was his dream to again play before the excited boosters in the Emperor's Cup.

"As expected, it was a good feeling to be out there today," he said with a big smile. "I really enjoyed the game."

"I'm glad to be here," he added.

Noticing a banner held up by fans behind the team's bench that featured the logos of all 19 bj-league teams, Nakamura said the Jets were "proud to represent Chiba, proud to represent the bj-league" at this marquee event.

Hargrow, meanwhile, admitted he didn't realize how big a deal the Emperor's Cup was on a national level to Japanese players and fans, but soon found out by the way his teammates and the boosters became fired up as the game progressed. "It was fun," he added. "We're honored to be here and represent the bj-league."

With the win, the Jets will face JBL club Levanga Hokkaido on Wednesday afternoon. The 32-team tourney, featuring JBL, JBL2, college, club and high school representatives, will crown a champion next Monday.

"With all due respect, we are the underdog," Gardow said, looking ahead to Chiba's next game."We're not expected to win, but we're really looking forward to the challenge. I don't know how to prepare to lose, but I know how to prepare to win whether we are playing the (Los Angeles) Lakers or Hokkaido."

Facing Hokkaido, Gardow added, will be a fun challenge, noting that the club has a "Japanese legend (Takehiko Orimo) that's still playing."

Hargrow paced the Jets with a game-high 24 points and a team-high three 3-pointers. Nakamura had 17 points and a game-best 12 rebounds and two blocked shots. Takaki Ishida poured in 11 points, Mitsuhiro Kamezaki scored nine, Hiroki Sato had eight and Kensuke Tanaka and Kosuke Yahata chipped in with seven points apiece.

Chiba was 26-for-39 at the free-throw line. The Jets out-rebounded Two Three 55-39 and held the club team to 28-for-78 shooting.

Osamu Shimabukuro led Two Three with 13 points.

The Emperor's Cup is a much different format than bj-league games. For starters, it features the one-import rule; bj-league rules permit three foreigners on the court except during the second quarter when the number is reduced to two. Second, the tournament games are played with a FIBA regulation ball instead of the bj-league's NBA-regulation size Spalding ball. Third, two game officials instead of three are on the court.

The Jets prepared for the national tournament by using the Molten basketball during Monday's practice. That got them used to the feel of the FIBA-size ball, Hargrow said. "But at the end of the day," he said, "it's still just basketball."

Attacking the basket with regularity kept the Jets playing at a high level for much of the game. The 198-cm Nakamura was a focal point of the team's inside game as the team got him the ball early and often.

Nakamura was 6-for-9 from the field, and fans chanted "Chomo, Chomo, Chomo," when the ball was in his hands. All told, the Jets were 26-for-52 from inside the 3-point arc. They shot 7-for-17 from the arc.

Nakamura, who has played for the title-winning Osaka Evessa and championship-contending Tokyo Apache in past years, scored the game's first two points at the charity stripe, and Chiba led 5-0 after a Hargrow 3-pointer. But Two Three, relying on speed, good ball movement and capable perimeter shooting, kept it close. The Jets trailed 18-13 after Satoru Morita buried a 3 for Two Three, but tied it at 18-18 on a pair of Hayato Shirata free throws with 3:23 left in the first quarter.

With time running down, Chiba forward Reina Itakura delivered a nice pass to big man Gaston Moliva, who scored inside for the final points of the opening quarter. That made it 25-22, Chiba.

The Jets extended their lead to 37-26 early in the second quarter, but their Yamaguchi foe kept poised and made enough shots to keep it close.

Chiba led 45-40 at halftime.

Two Three was whistled for 25 personal fouls to Chiba's 15. The Jets' relentless attack-the-basket mind-set paid off.

"That's our style. That's how we play. We're leading the bj-league in free-throw attempts," Gardow said. "And it doesn't matter who we're playing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but the second part of that is we need to make our free throws. We left a lot of them out there (against Two Three), and that can't happen for us to beat a good team like Hokkaido. We're going to have to attack, get them in foul trouble and get them into their bench and also convert our free throws for us to even have a chance to win."

After Monday's triumph, Gardow had a chance to reflect on the historic significance of Chiba's appearance in the Emperor's Cup.

"I'm really excited to be here from a Chiba Jets standpoint. I'm happy to represent the Chiba Jets and the bj-league," Gardow said. "And it's my hope that more bj-league teams can be a part of this in the future. And with that said, we're the ones that probably have to make the biggest adjustment to the rules, to the balls, to import players, to lineups. Everybody else can pretty much keep doing what they're doing. So for us to have to go through all those adjustments and still come out on top with a win, that's pretty good for us. We're very pleased."

Notes: The Jets are 10-12 and in sixth place in the bj-league's Eastern Conference standings. This week's competition gives the team's players a different venue and matchups to compete against. Several bj-league officials, including director of officials Kunio Kurata were spotted near courtside during the game against Two Three.

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