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Monday, May 21, 2012

News photo
Team spirit: The Ryukyu Golden Kings celebrate after beating the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix 89-73 to win the bj-league title on Sunday. YOSHIAKI MIURA

Golden Kings beat Phoenix for bj-league title


Staff writer

The Ryukyu Golden Kings withstood every challenge the two-time defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix threw at them Sunday evening.

News photo
Gold standard: Ryukyu's Tsubasa Yonamine dribbles the ball as Hamamatsu's Wayne Arnold defends during the bj-league championship game at Ariake Colosseum on Sunday. YOSHIAKI MIURA

They handled the pressure well, stuck to their game plan — "coach emphasized hustle all week . . . and we took it to another level," big man Dzaflo Larkai said — and closed out the game in true impressive form: a 17-3 championship-clinching run.

In the end, Ryuyu dethroned Hamamatsu 89-73 before 9,402 fans at Ariake Colosseum on Sunday.

It was a rematch of the 2010-11 final, when Hamamatsu topped Ryukyu 82-68.

The Golden Kings (39-13) were the bj-league's top team in the regular season and lived up to that billing in Sunday's marquee showdown.

Ryukyu ended its three-year championship drought, having captured its first title by ending the Osaka Evessa's three-season reign in May 2009.

Veteran center Jeff Newton was a part of the three Evessa titles, and led the charge for the Okinawa-based club a year later when it first captured national glory. He's the only player in league history to appear in all seven Final Fours, and the only one with five championships on his resume.

"I'm so happy, man," Newton said after a nine-point, 19-rebound, three-steal, one-block performance.

"I'm just so happy for our fans, for our organization. . . . This team really does deserve it."

Asked to reflect on his overall success in Japan, Newton responded by saying, "I play to win and I want to win them all. . . . I love being in these kinds of moments. They all feel great. Every time it's another accomplishment."

After the Kings' Narito Namizato scored on a nifty reverse layup, Hamamatsu's Wayne Arnold's two free throws cut the Ryukyu advantage to 72-70 with 3:02 remaining.

The Golden Kings seized control from that point with the aforementioned run, including playoff MVP Anthony McHenry's slam dunk with about 2:20 left, en route to a resounding victory, doing it with defense, hustle, a relentless attack-the-basket mentality and free throws down the stretch (they were 15-for-18 at the line in the fourth quarter).

"When McHenry made the dunk (in the final quarter), I almost started crying," Ryukyu coach Dai Oketani said later.

McHenry had a game-high 25 points, Naoto Kosuge scored 17 and 22-year-old point guard Narito Namizato poured in 15.

Jermaine Dixon was the Phoenix's top scorer with 20 points on 6-for-19 shooting. McHenry hounded Dixon, playing terrific defense. It was one big factor in the Phoenix's offensive struggles, including a six-point second quarter. Lawrence Blackledge had 13 points and nine rebounds and Atsuya Ota and Shingo Okada both scored 10.

In addition, Ryukyu won the battle of the boards 54-41.

Newton's 19 rebounds did not go unnoticed.

"Jeff sacrificed his body," Oketani said. "He played really well as usual. But at the end of the day, we played as a team and that brought us the championship."

Kosuge said the Kings' sense of urgency was on full display throughout the game.

"We were desperate to win, so we just put out our hearts," Kosuge said.

Hamamatsu trailed 51-39 in the third quarter before a 15-6 spurt brought the reigning champs within 57-54 and energized them entering the final stanza.

The Golden Kings didn't run out of steam, while the Phoenix simply looked off their game in all facets.

"Today, they were better than us," Dixon said.

Added Wayne Arnold, who was held to seven points on 2-for-11 shooting: "I'm disappointed to come this far this season and come up short."

These are two championship organizations, (but) it's only one game. So whoever's the better team that night comes out with a victory."

First-year head coach Ryuji Kawai, who took over for Kazuo Nakamura after the Phoenix's second title campaign, summed up the game this way: "The team gave its best performance, but it's just me who's responsible for the defeat. I failed to give the team the win. If Kazu-san (Nakamura) was leading the team we would've overwhelmed them for sure. And we would've finished the regular season in a better fashion under him."

Shingo Okada's jumper put Hamamatsu ahead 30-27 midway through the second quarter, but the Phoenix offense hit a speed bump, so to speak, and slowed to a grinding halt under the Kings' tenacious defensive attack.

Tsubasa Yonamine canned a 3-pointer to initiate an 11-0 Ryukyu run to end the half.

The sensational spurt included the one-two punch of McHenry and Newton combining for eight points, with McHenry making a layup and a forceful jam. Newton, a master of low-post moves, earned a trip to the line on a drive near the hoop and converted twice and dropped a smooth spot-up jumper through the net.

The Golden Kings outscored the Phoenix 19-6 in the second quarter. Hamamatsu shot 3-for-15 in that poor display of offense, with Atsuya Ota making 2 of 4.

Hamamatsu took a 24-20 lead into the second quarter, getting the final points of the opening period on Blackledge's slam dunk after a Ryukyu turnover.

The Golden Kings had led 12-6 after Kosuge buried his second 3-point shot of the game, but the Phoenix rallied back, tying it at 18-18 on an Okada layup and again at 20-20 on a Wayne Arnold putback.

Kosuge, the 2007-08 All-Star Game MVP while playing for the Niigata Albirex BB, had the hot hand early, scoring 10 first-quarter points.

The championship quest was a goal for the Golden Kings since training camp, but in the heat of the moment on Sunday, the team's second-youngest player, Namizato, offered the wisdom of a season veteran: "We sort of put the championship aside and were focused to beat who were playing, which was Hamamatsu."

In the third-place game, the Yokohama B-Corsairs led from start to finish and defeated the Kyoto Hannaryz 75-66.

Regular-season MVP Justin Burrell sank a step-back 3-pointer to give Yokohama its first lead and finished with 27 points, including 10-for-13 from the free-throw line. Draelon Burns poured in 19 points and Masayuki Kabaya had 11.

The B-Corsairs finished their inaugural season with a 33-23 record.

"The goal of every team is to win its last game," said Yokohama sideline supervisor Reggie Geary, the bj-league's 2011-12 Coach of the Year.

"Even though it's not the championship, we take great pride as a first-year team to finish with a win in the Final Four."

Kyoto trailed 19-6 after the opening quarter. Leading scorer Jermaine Boyette sat out the game after reaggravating a knee injury on Saturday against Ryukyu.

The Hannaryz (35-21) turned the ball over 20 times. Yokohama collected nine steals, including Kabaya's team-high three and Marcus Simmons' two.

Taizo Kawabe paced Kyoto with 22 points, including 3-for-7 from 3-point range. Lee Cummard had 14 points, Babacar Camara added nine points and eight rebounds and Rick Rickert contributed eight points and 11 boards.

"Truly, it was a good season," Hannaryz coach Honoo Hamaguchi told reporters after the game, saying he gave that same message to the players in a short post-game meeting.

Facing a good defense, Hamaguchi said his team had a difficult time on offense, saying "frustration" sunk in as points were hard to come by.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.



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