Getting to MLK tournament half the battle for visiting team
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Wide open on the left wing, Megan Newson collected a pass, took aim and put up a three-point shot that hit nothing but net with 12 seconds left in overtime. The scoreboard showed Yokota 32, Osan 30.
“Yeah! That’s it!” shouted Yokota women’s coach Alayr’c Sampson as he leaped off the bench and applauded.
Newson’s shot propelled Yokota, of Japan, past Korea’s Osan Lady Defenders 34-30 Friday in round-robin play in the 12th Martin Luther King Invitational Basketball Tournament. Earlier, the Lady Raiders defeated Okinawa’s Kubasaki High 39-22, a night after a frustrating 38-26 loss to the Okinawa Queens.
“Not bad for a team with six players,” the smiling Sampson said after his squad avenged two losses to Osan in a preseason tournament at Misawa Air Base, Japan. “It’s doubly satisfying. We’re really enjoying our stay here, for sure.”
While winning two games was indeed gratifying, Sampson said the bigger victory was getting six players released from duty and finding enough space-available seats on military aircraft to appear in the tournament. This is Yokota’s first appearance in the MLK.
“We’re very happy just to be here,” Sampson said. “This is something we’d like to do every year.”
It’s something most military teams traveling to the Okinawa tournament find difficult.
Unlike command-level events in which teams have everything funded from travel to billeting, MLK entrants must make their own way to the island, paying for transportation and lodging.
The Misawa men and women canceled the day before the tournament began. Another women’s team, Camp Humphreys of Korea, was still searching for space-A seats and forfeited two games on Friday.
The two Yongsan Runnin’ Rebels clubs from Korea were more fortunate. Their travel and billeting was fully funded by Yongsan Garrison’s 34th Support Group. Osan’s men and women also got a helping hand from 55 Alpha, an airlift squadron at Osan Air Base that detached a C-12 to fly them to Okinawa.
Yokota’s women weren’t as lucky. “Some of us bought commercial tickets to be back at work when they’re supposed to be,” Sampson said. “It’s not easy.”
Work was a major concern for all six off-island teams in the field, which had to leave players behind because of duty commitments.
Three of Sampson’s players flew space-A from Yokota on Tuesday, and three more arrived on Wednesday. Three of his starters stayed home.
“You can’t really play like you want to,” he said. “You can’t create too many fouls, and you worry about injuries.”
Yokota’s men were at least able to get all eight of its players to Okinawa by Tuesday. “We got lucky,” forward Christopher Smith said.
While Osan received airlift support, “duty releases were really hard,” Lady Defenders coach Terrence Mosley said. “Some got released at the last minute. Some had to take leave. That’s the big deal for us.”
The Osan men suited up six players for Thursday’s 67-64 comeback victory over Okinawa’s Torii Army Knights. With guards Darryl Harmon and Gerald Ragland arriving late Thursday night, Osan routed the Foster Fanatics of Okinawa 86-36 on Friday. Harmon led the way with 27 points.
Yongsan’s teams got support other than funding, men’s coach Barry Jones said.
“We have some good players and soldiers and they have good relationships with their supervisors, so it was easy to get them off work,” Jones said. “But that’s the exception, not the norm.”
Yongsan’s men hit 36 three-pointers and averaged 63.5 points in their two games despite the absence of three players.
“You make sure everybody is prepared,” Jones said. “We ran some intense practices to ensure everybody doesn’t lose their mental edge. If you don’t have everybody, you make adjustments. The good thing about this team is, we have enough players who fill the gaps and step up.”
Those who don’t have fully funded travel or airlift support may face a new challenge once the tournament is over, Smith said.
“You’re not guaranteed anything” when it comes to space-A flights, he said. “Getting back may be more difficult than getting here.”