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SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Faced with their first challenge against a Japan Basketball League Class AA team this season, Kristia Suriben and the small-school E.J. King Cobras earned a passing grade, said coach Bridget Vertin.

Suriben, the Cobras’ star sophomore point guard, scored 23 points on Friday and made the pass that freed junior Denise Artillaga for the game-winning layup in the closing seconds as E.J. King edged the Yokota Panthers 45-44 and improved to 7-0, the best start in school history.

“This gives them a needed confidence boost … they know now they can hang with these big schools,” said Vertin of a team that was “extremely nervous” entering the contest.

After falling behind by six in the first quarter, the Panthers (1-1) clawed back and led by three after three quarters before the Cobras rallied.

Yokota had a chance when senior Chyna Roach hit a shot as the horn sounded but officials ruled time had expired.

“What a barnburner,” Yokota coach Ric Cabral said. “Great defense, great offense on both sides.”

Both Suriben’s scoring and playmaking did in the Panthers, Cabral said.

“She did a job on us,” he said. “She sees the floor better” than last year as a freshman. “She made some beautiful passes for back-door baskets to open teammates. That’s what beat us.”

E.J. King’s victory is the latest episode in a remarkable turnaround that saw the Cobras go from a four-win team in 2003-04 to 20-11 last season, fueled by Suriben’s debut and the inside play of center Erika Alexander.

Alexander has graduated and the team is much smaller, sizewise, but Vertin feels it’s “more balanced” this season.

“Not taking a thing away from Alexander — she’s a great player — but they’ve become more of a team,” Vertin said, adding that finishing fifth in last year’s Class A tournament “motivated them to work harder. They want the chance to prove they can all be great players.”

Much needs to be done yet, Vertin said.

“We still need to rebound better and we committed too many turnovers.”

Cabral said, “If they had an inside presence” such as an Alexander, “they’d be awesome.”

Artillaga added 12 points for the Cobras. Roach finished with a team-high 19 points; Allora Bellanger chipped in 12 for Yokota.

Trojans boys prevail in Eagles NestAnother team that’s broken out of the gate handsomely, Zama American’s boys, ventured north into snow country and came away with a victory over Robert D. Edgren at Misawa Air Base.

Aaron Tabor scored 18 points to lead three players in double figures and the Trojans (5-1) rallied from a nine-point halftime deficit to edge Edgren (3-2) 59-56 at the Eagles Nest. Zama placed sixth in the Class AA tournament but finished 10-22 a season ago.

A change in defense and plenty of offensive rebounding combined to do in the Eagles, said Andre Thibert.

“They spread the defense out on the perimeter and they killed us on rebounding,” Thibert said of the taller Trojans. “They got a lot of second-chance baskets. They’re a good team.”

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