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Sunday, May 13, 2012

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Storming the lane: Yokohama's Draelon Burns drives on Akita's Kazuhiro Shoji in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series on Thursday night at Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium. Yokohama won the series 2-1. KAZ NAGATSUKA

Surging Yokohama continues amazing season, advances to Final Four

Staff writer

YOKOHAMA — Self-assurance has been a recurring theme for the Yokohama B-Corsairs throughout their inaugural season.

They fought the two-time defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix to a season-opening loss in overtime back in October, and came back the next day and earned a series split.

They hovered around the .500 mark for several weeks before finding their stride, getting a big boost from key acquisition Draelon Burns and closing the regular season with 22 wins in their last 30 games to post a 31-21 record and earn the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed for the bj-league playoffs.

And, after outlasting the Akita Northern Happinets on Friday night, they have advanced to next weekend's Final Four at Ariake Colosseum.

It's a stunning accomplishment for a first-year franchise in the 19-team league.

Now they await the winner of the Hamamatsu-Niigata Albirex BB series, which was scheduled to begin on Saturday.

"I am confident in my team, and we are preparing to give ourselves a fighting chance at winning a championship," Yokohama coach Reggie Geary said recently.

"Obviously, we are very happy," Geary said in a crammed press room. "This is a historic day for the B-Corsairs organization."

Akita defeated Yokohama 82-69 in Game 2 of the high-stakes series before a rowdy crowd of 2,120 at Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium to force a mini-game tiebreaker: two 5-minute periods after a 20-minute intermission. The mini-game ended this way: Yokohama 18, Akita 15.

In Game 2, the Happinets, playing fierce and focused, were led by 22-year-old shooting guard Shigehiro Taguchi's 20-point outburst, four 3s and 8-for-14 shooting from the field. Akita star Ricky Woods had 18 points and nine rebounds as Yokohama's 10-game winning streak ended.

Power forward Justin Burrell, the 2011-12 MVP as a rookie, paced the B-Corsairs with 21 points and 17 rebounds.

Like he had done a week earlier after a two-point loss to the Sendai 89ers in the series opener, the Northern Happinets' wily bench boss, Kazuo Nakamura, got his players to bounce back in a must-win rematch the next day.

(Akita blitzed Sendai, using an 18-0 run to start the second game and force the tiebreaker.)

Against Yokohama, Akita led 18-16 after one quarter, and held a one-point edge at halftime. The hot-shooting Happinets erupted for 28 third-quarter points, running disciplined sets and moving the offense with precision. Despite trimming the deficit to single digits on a couple occasions late, the hosts fell short.

Burrell, the team's go-to player all season, wouldn't let it happen again. He scored the team's first nine points of the mini-game. In a signature moment highlighting the team's trust in its top scorer, center Chas McFarland's lob to his frontcourt mate earned Burrell a trip to the foul line, and he calmly sank two free throws to make it 9-5.

"From day one, when we started practice, I knew JB was an excellent player," McFarland said, citing what he had learned about Burrell's college career at St. John's. "He's really led by example and worked hard every day in practice."

More important, McFarland noted, "he doesn't let (success) go to his head."

But as always, the rapid-fire Happinets still had a shot. A Woods layup cut it to 9-7, but B-Corsairs captain Masayuki Kabaya's runner pushed the lead back to four, and moments later Burrell completed a layup-and-one to give Yokohama a 15-9.

Happinets forward Lionel Green's 3-pointer pulled them within 15-12 before Kenji Yamada and Burns sank free throws down the stretch for the hosts, the latter's two foul shots coming after gunner Kyle Swanston's 3-ball pulled Akita within one in the closing seconds.

Burns' free throws represented the final points of the series, with Green's 3 off the mark at the buzzer.

Yokohama secured the mini-game win at the charity stripe, taking 15 free throws (making 10, including Burrell's 6-for-9) to Akita's zero.

"Sometimes the ball just doesn't go in for us," Burrell said, describing his team's somewhat tense demeanor in Game 2. "But you have just got to keep doing the other things — defense. . ."

This included Burns' 4-for-13 shooting, Burrell's 7-for-16, Marcus Simmons' 1-for-6 and Kenji Yamada's 2-for-6.

"I'm so proud of this group of players. They fought through adversity," added Burrell, with McFarland, Kabaya and Kenji Yamada sitting beside him in the interview area.

Lumping Game 2 and the mini-game together, Burrell described it as "the most physical and exhausting game we've played all year."

Before the mini-game, Geary kept his message simple as his team returned to the court to face the pesky Happinets, who were 0-4 against the B-Corsairs in the regular season.

He penciled in the names of Burns, Kabaya and Yamada in the backcourt and Burrell and McFarland for the mini-game lineup, sticking with the starting five that has worked so effectively during the team's improbable run to the Final Four.

"I just relied on these guys to get the job done," Geary said.

It worked. And Yokohama's season resumes next weekend with a golden opportunity for the team to establish a greater fan base throughout Kanagawa Prefecture.

"Japanese fans are very loyal and supportive, and once the people of Yokohama and Japan become more exposed to the sport, it will only grow," Geary said.

"Our very first road game we had a traveling party of one fan. In the final regular-season games of the year that were on the road, we had a traveling party of 40 vociferous fans. . . . We still have some work to go to get more fans, but the future is bright."

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