Dubbed #YoungBloods when they left New Zealand, few would have given this inexperienced young Tall Blacks team much hope of progressing deep into the FIBA Asia Cup, but such has been the growth of the team and the lessons learned, they find themselves straight into the quarter finals as Group C winners, despite a one-point defeat to South Korea tonight in Beirut.
Tonight’s game was a bitter pill to swallow though, losing in the final seconds as a potential game winner from Shea Ili caught the rim and would not roll the right way, but the fact the Tall Blacks were even in that position was testament to an outstanding second half comeback, with the team trailing by as many as 15 at one point in the first half.
Coach Henare was calm and composed during that 15-minute interval, getting the response he wanted from his young charges as they set out on an immediate seven point run to make it a one basket contest for most of the remaining minutes.
With the teams trading baskets and free throws down the stretch, New Zealand had the final possession and the chance to finish pool play unbeaten, but came up just short on the buzzer. Despite knowing that the team had won the group (subject only to Lebanon defeating Kazakhstan which they duly did), Henare did dwell for just a moment on an opportunity lost to win an international game.
“This whole campaign, experience and tournament is about learning. Learning from the good things but also from the mistakes we make. And we made a couple of crucial errors in that final minute that cost us the game – not that it comes down to those single possessions on their own, but in crucial situations you need to execute on both ends and we let ourselves down there, I wanted to get that message across first but then quickly recognize that we achieved our goal of finishing first in our pool, and I am extremely proud of the boys in doing that.”
Henare says there was never any thought of manufacturing a result – with the team able to lose by two points (provided they scored 69 points or more in doing so) and still win the group. The truth is that sort of margin was always too tight to mess with and anyway, Tall Blacks basketball only knows one way to play – to win.
“We went through the process as a management team, looking at the different scenarios in a three-way tie. And you can get tied up in those sorts of things but in the end we decided it was best for us to concentrate on winning that basketball game.
“Fortunately, we had enough in terms of a points split to have the luxury of losing by one or two, hence we played the final possession the way we did, we wanted to win the game on the last shot but we didn’t want to give them the ball back and Korea a shot at knocking us out of top spot.”
The New Zealanders were paced by Derone Raukawa and birthday boy Finn Delany, with 14 points apiece – with Raukawa called upon to play crucial minutes with Shea Ili in some early foul trouble. Sam Timmins and Tohi Smith-Milner provided some size in the paint, and captain Reuben Te Rangi was all over the stat sheet again.
But it was again a team effort, with everyone giving tirelessly to the cause on defence, and working to get open looks on offence, in a never say die Tall Blacks performance that everyone back home can be proud of.
“I am extremely proud of the group for achieving first place in our group at a FIBA tournament, that is no mean feat and it is a great place to be,” said Henare. “What happens now is a bit different to most tournaments, we have four days off before we play, so the key is finding the balance to keep that edge we have shown in our pool games, but finding the time to relax a little, enjoy Lebanon and Beirut and take in our surroundings and environment. That means the tournament but also the different country and culture, that is important. But we will have a couple of days of hard, hard training before the quarter final.”
Henare says there is a real belief starting to develop in the team, although he acknowledged that perhaps - as has always been the case throughout Tall Black history, being the underdog is not a bad thing.
“They have more than proven they are capable of competing and winning against quality teams, that is important, but equally it is important to recognize that we are better when we have that edge and possibly the first half tonight, there was not the same atmosphere as two nights ago and possibly not as much riding on the game. But we are better when we have that edge, so we need to find a way of keeping it.”
New Zealand will know their quarter final opponent once the qualifier is played on August 15 local time, between the runner up from Group A and the third placed team from Group B. New Zealand’s quarter final will be played at 6:30pm local time on the 17th (3am on the 18th NZT).
Tall Blacks 75
Raukawa 14, Delany 14 & 8, Timmins 12 & 6
Lee 16, Oh 13