2 May 2023
UTSUNOMIYA (Japan) - The wait was worth it with the FIBA 3x3 Utsunomiya Opener 2023 on April 29-30 filled with spectacular plays, Maurice Lacroix Buzzer Beaters and close finishes.
Let's look back at an incredible start to the World Tour's 12th season.
Ub Huishan NE remain the standard
New year, same result. The field was loaded in Utsunomiya, but defending champs Ub Huishan NE (SRB) once again proved they are a class above the rest of the competition.
After producing one of the greatest ever seasons last year, there was intrigue over whether these spectacular Serbs still had the hunger. The answer was an emphatic yes after Ub reeled off an unbeaten campaign.
They started sluggishly in the pool stage with tough wins over Sansar MMC Energy (MGL) and Sydney CLBEXE (AUS).
But as per usual they clicked into gear when it mattered most to take their game up a level in the knockout stage capped by a comprehensive 21-11 victory over Antwerp TOPdesk (BEL) in the final.
It was again a team effort complete with trademark beautiful passing built on perfect chemistry.
MVP Strahinja Stojacic proved why he's the best 3x3 player on the planet while Dejan Majstorovic continued his love affair with Utsunomiya to win his fifth title there from as many attempts.
The dude who might just make the jump in 2023 is powerfully built Nemanja Barac, who is known as a defensive specialist and being stronger than a sumo wrestler.
But he seems bouncier than before as highlighted by a couple of monster dunks in Utsunomiya as Barac adds more firepower to an increasingly potent Ub, who look even better in 2023.
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2022's star debutants have gone up a level
Vienna's Quincy Diggs and Caspar Augustijnen were probably the best World Tour debutants last year and so far they certainly don't have second year blues.
You have to admire Diggs' heart and passion after he seemed to injure himself early in the semi-final against Ub.
But he fought through the pain and returned to pour in a game-high 12 points as Vienna pushed Ub before ultimately coming up short. Diggs, the highest ranked American player, finished second in player value (29.3) to firmly become Vienna's talisman.
Augustijnen was just as impressive to dominate equally on offense and defense to help inspire Antwerp TOPdesk's push to the final.
The 24-year-old lived up to the hype and his long reach makes him almost unstoppable to score against at the rim as confirmed by his tournament high 6 blocks - double the next best.
We suspected it would be the case, but Diggs and Augstijnen just have to be rated 3x3 superstars.
Now that's some elite rim protection 😍#3x3WT #3x3WTUtsunomiya pic.twitter.com/RfD50H69ce— FIBA3x3 (@FIBA3x3) April 30, 2023
Ariunbold has started 2023 on fire
After his heroics at the FIBA 3x3 Asia Cup 2023, where he made the three-point play to clinch Mongolia's title, there was a lot of excitement over emerging superstar Anand Ariunbold.
He didn't disappoint to finish second in scoring (34 points) as Ariunbold led Sansar MMC Energy to a semi-final run with his jumper tastier than sushi to delight the loud group of Mongolian fans in the bleachers.
The 26-year-old looks even deadlier alongside former Liman star Aleksandar Ratkov, who constantly fed him good looks as Ariunbold again proved his superstar qualities.
Anand Ariunbold is so good that he really needs his own nickname.
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'The Royal Guard' takes flight
Joel Henry aka 'The Royal Guard' has been around for some time and is known for being able to fly higher than British Airways.
He's a former Masters dunk champ, but has surely never thrown together so many nasty jams than during an epic Ashikaga dunk contest in Utsunomiya.
Henry had to come up with the 10s because American Brandon Ruffin aka 'B-Ruff' - the defending champ - was also unleashing dunks that seemed like they were from NBA Jam Session.
But Henry prevailed in the $4,000 contest thanks to an insane final dunk where he produced a reverse slam....over a volunteer. And did I mention there was a kid on the shoulders of the volunteer who was holding the ball?
It seemed humanly impossible but Henry looks to have added a couple of inches to his vertical leap.
The dunking possibilities are endless for the dunking daredevil who had the Utsunomiya crowd making more noise than at a J-pop concert.
Utsunomiya again proves to be an incredible World Tour destination
For the second straight year, Utsunomiya hosted the season-opener and once again it was a memorable event.
The bleachers were consistently full with not only passionate fans for local teams, but there was also a large group of Mongolian supporters willing their heroes over the line.
The half-court was set in one of the most picturesque and historical sites on the World Tour - the Futaarayama Jinja shrine, which was founded about 1,600 years ago.
It was an unforgettable fifth visit to Utsunomiya and we can't wait to return.