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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Utsunomiya Brex are Thriving with Team-First Play

During a 21-game win streak, which began on January 21, the Utsunomiya Brex solidified their team chemistry to make a run at the B.League title this season.

For the title-chasing Utsunomiya Brex, a 21-game winning streak from January 21 to April 10 shined a vivid spotlight on the B.League team's talent and depth.

In the team's 21st straight win on Wednesday, April 10, an 89-77 victory over the visiting Gunma Crane Thunders, five Brex players reached double figures in points. Veteran guard Hironori Watanabe, who sank 5 of 8 3-point shots, was the high scorer with a season-best 19 points.

The Brex's epic winning streak ended on Saturday, April 13 with a 79-71 road defeat to the Levanga Hokkaido (16-36) at Hokkaido Prefectural Sports Center.

Utsunomiya (44-8) won more than one-third of its games in a row during the 60-game season. This remarkable achievement started a day after the Brex lost 68-66 to the reigning champion Ryukyu Golden Kings on January 20 at Okinawa Arena. They avenged that loss with a 74-68 bounce-back triumph.

Nearly three full months later, Brex coach Norio Sassa's team came close to matching the B.League first-division record for consecutive wins (24), set by the Chiba Jets in the 2022-23 season.

After the Brex's loss in their series opener against the Levanga in Sapporo, Sassa expressed disappointment in the final outcome.

But Sassa told reporters that the winning streak is "something that the players have worked hard to achieve up to this point. I personally have a lot to reflect on from this match, and I want to fight as a unified team."

On Saturday, Hokkaido outscored Utsunomiya 45-33 in the first and fourth quarters.

The Brex were set to close out the weekend series against the Levanga on Sunday at the same venue.

Utsunomiya Brex
Utsunomiya Brex guard Seiji Ikaruga shoots a 3-pointer on April 10 during the B.League team's 21st straight win. (B.LEAGUE)

Balanced Offense Carries the Utsunomiya Brex

Looking back at the Brex's 21-game unbeaten run, one impressive detail illustrated the team's diversified offensive attack. Six different players led the team in scoring at least once during the win streak.

Veteran American guard DJ Newbill was the top scorer on nine occasions, followed by Isaac Fotu (four times), Grant Jerrett three times, Makoto Heijima and Hirohide Araya (twice) and Watanabe (once).

Interestingly enough, no player led the club in scoring for more than three straight games during the streak. In fact, only Newbill was the top scorer in three straight games in the 21-game streak. He did it with team-high 28-, 19- and 23-point performances against the Nagasaki Velca on February 10 and 11 and the Sunrockers Shibuya on March 2 when the season resumed after a break in February for the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers.

As the top scorers throughout the Brex's win streak demonstrated, the team doesn't rely on one or two players to carry the scoring load.

This, in turn, makes them more difficult to defend.

Utsunomiya Brex
Utsunomiya forward Isaac Fotu competes against the Akita Northern Happinets on April 7 at Brex Arena Utsunomiya. (B.LEAGUE)

Rebounding Load Shared by Everybody

With 52 of 60 games in the books, Utsunomiya's overall balance ― defined by a commitment to teamwork ― is seen in the statistics. The numbers tell a story. Consider the Brex's rebounding, a task effectively shared by several players. Jerrett is the team leader with 6.7 rebounds per game, followed by Fotu (6.2), Gavin Edwards (5.3), Newbill (5.0) and Kosuke Takeuchi (4.3).

Furthermore, the scoring load is also handled as an across-the-board assignment.

Newbill is the leading scorer (16.9 points per game). Hiejima (12.7), Fotu (12.2) and Jerrett (10.5) also have double-digit scoring averages. Yusuke Endo is averaging 8.1 points, followed by Edwards' 7.8.

Utsunomiya Brex
Brex guard DJ Newbill dribbles as Northern Happinets big man Javier Carter defends on April 7. (B.LEAGUE)

It's just a shoe!

The Top Teams in the B.League

The Brex are one of five B.League teams with 35 or more wins through games of April 13, with the Alvark Tokyo and San-en NeoPhoenix tied for the second-best record (42-10). Ryukyu is 38-14 and the Nagoya Diamond Dolphins, winners of seven straight, are 35-17.

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Shohei Ohtani (left) and his longtime interpreter Ippei Mizuhara attend a news conference at Dodger Stadium on December 14, 2023. (Aude Guerrucci/REUTERS)

Baseball

Former Translator Mizuhara Charged with Stealing More Than $16 Million from Ohtani

Ippei Mizuhara, MLB star Shohei Ohtani's former interpreter, appeared before US Magistrate Maria Audero at a Los Angeles court on Friday, April 12, a day after US federal prosecutors charged him with bank fraud.

Mizuhara could face up to 30 years in prison if he's convicted of federal bank fraud.

The former Los Angeles Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers interpreter for Ohtani was released on a $25,000 USD (¥3.8 million JPY) bond after making his initial court appearance.

Audero ordered that Mizuhara begin receiving gambling addiction treatment. On May 9, he is scheduled to return to court for a formal arraignment hearing.

According to the US Justice Department, whose documents in the gambling probe were reported by multiple media outlets, Mizuhara made 19,000 bets between December 2021 and March 2024 (about 25 bets per day), the feds allege.

In this sensational scandal attracting attention worldwide, Mizuhara reportedly won $142 million (more than ¥21 billion) and lost nearly $183 million (¥28 billion) in bets while transferring more than $16 million (more than ¥2.4 billion) from Ohtani's bank account without his knowledge to pay off debts, it was reported.

US Attorney Martin Estrada told reporters there isn't evidence that Mizuhara wagered on baseball. He also addressed the larger issue of Mizuhara's alleged crime at a news conference on Thursday.

"Mizuhara used and abused that position of trust in order to plunder Mr Ohtani's bank account to feed his insatiable appetite for illegal sports betting," Estrada was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse.

Estrada also underscored the focus of the probe.

"I want to emphasize this point: Mr Ohtani is considered a victim in this case," Estrada said, according to The Associated Press.

Mizuhara Expected to Plead Guilty

Meanwhile, Mizuhara is negotiating a plea deal with federal investigators, The New York Times reported.

The investigation, conducted by the Department of Homeland Security, the International Revenue Service and the United States Attorney's Office for the Central District of California, has detailed Mizuhara's alleged bank fraud. It points to identity theft to execute his wire transfers.

"In particular," The New York Times wrote, "the authorities think they have evidence that Mizuhara was able to change the settings on Ohtani's bank account so Ohtani would not receive alerts and confirmations about transactions…"

Other media outlets reported that the investigators' findings link Mizuhara with altering the contact information for Ohtani's bank account, switching the phone number from Ohtani's to his.

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Los Angeles Dodgers designated hitter Shohei Ohtani smacks a solo home run in the first inning against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium on April 12. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SPORTS)

Ohtani Slugs 175th Homer to Match Matsui's MLB Career Total

With a first-inning solo blast to center off San Diego Padres starter Michael King on Friday, Ohtani tied Hideki Matsui for the most career home runs by a Japanese player in MLB history with 175.

Matsui, nicknamed "Godzilla," retired in 2012.

The Dodgers lost 8-7 in 11 innings at Dodger Stadium. Ohtani went 3-for-5 in the opener of the three-game series.

Akebono defeats Takanohana in a Spring Grand Sumo Tournament match on March 27, 1995, in Osaka. (©SANKEI)

Sumo

Former Rival Pays Tribute to the Late Yokozuna Akebono

During their heyday as sumo wrestlers in the 1990s, Wakanohana and Akebono both reached the pinnacle of the sport, ascending to yokozuna. 

The rivals also had numerous memorable matches.

It was announced on Thursday, April 11 that Akebono, the first foreign-born yokozuna, had died of heart failure at age 54.

Wakanohana, whose given name is Masaru Hanada, reacted to the news on his blog.

"He was a rival, he was a friend. The friend with whom I shared joys and sorrows has departed," Wakanohana, whose brother Takanohana also became a yokozuna, wrote on his blog, Kyodo News reported. "It's so sudden that I can't find words for his departure."

In an interview with ABC News Australia, Katrina Watts, the director of the International Sumo Federation, recalled one of the keys for Hawaiian native Akebono's sustained success in sumo.

"He would fend his opponents off with very strong thrusts and he had very long arms," Watts said, "so he would reach out and then later he would grab them by the belt and throw them or lift them out. So he had a very particular technique that he honed to suit his own size and style."

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Japan's Nao Hibino hits a return in a Billie Jean King Cup singles match against Kazakhstan's Yulia Putinsteva on April 13 at Tokyo's Ariake Coliseum. (KYODO)

Tennis

Japan Clinches Spot in Billie Jean King Cup Finals

The Japan women's tennis team triumphed in its best-of-five Billie Jean King Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan on Saturday, April 13 in Tokyo.

As a result, captain Ai Sugiyama's squad advanced to the 12-nation Billie Jean King Cup Finals in November in Seville, Spain.

On Friday, Japan took a 2-0 lead, with Naomi Osaka earning a 6-2, 7-6 (7-5) win over Yulia Putinsteva and Nao Hibino beating Anna Danilina 6-1, 6-0 at Ariake Coliseum.

A day later, Hibino sealed the overall victory with a 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9-7) decision over Putinsteva.

In Saturday's doubles match, Kazakhstan's Danilina and Zhibek Kulambayeva defeated Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara 7-6 (9-7), 6-3 (11-9).

Reacting to Japan's success against Kazakhstan, Sugiyama commended the players for their effort.

"Ever since I became the [team] captain of the BJK Cup last year, everyone has worked hard and has done what each one needs to do," Sugiyama said, according to the tournament's official website. "It was a process in which everyone dealt with her disappointments, aiming to end up being a stronger player.

"That is why this road to the finals opened up in front of us. I feel that I have been able to spend a meaningful year and four months and I am really proud of this team."

The Billie Jean King Cup was formerly known as the Federation Cup, aka the Women's World Cup of Tennis.

Kota Fujioka rides Joe Cappuccino to victory in the NHK Mile Cup on May 10, 2009, at Tokyo Racecourse. (©SANKEI)

Horse Racing

Veteran Jockey Fujioka Dies Four Days After Race Accident

Kota Fujioka, who appeared in more than 10,700 Japan Racing Association races and accumulated 803 victories in his career, died on Wednesday, April 10 after sustaining injuries at Hanshin Racecourse four days earlier. He was 35. 

In Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, Fujioka fell off his horse during the seventh race on April 6, with chest and head injuries sending him to the hospital.

After the accident, Fujioka never regained consciousness, according to published reports.

Mile Championship
Kota Fujioka (ⒸSANKEI)

Fujioka became the first jockey to die from a JRA race-related accident in 20 years, the racing governing body announced.

In his 17-year career, the Shiga Prefecture native collected a pair of Grade 1 victories, most recently in the 40th Mile Championship in November 2023 aboard Namur at Kyoto Racecourse. He also nabbed a G1 win in May 2009, steering Joe Cappuccino to victory in the NHK Mile Cup.

Legendary jockey Yutaka Take mourned Fujioka's death, which was announced on Thursday.

"I have never felt this much pain and sadness," Take was quoted as saying in a statement by Kyodo News.

He added, "I still can't believe it. Going forward, I want to race with thoughts of Kota in my heart."


Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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