New Zealand are into the medal round at the FIBA Asia Cup in Beirut, and they are there in some style on the back of a 98-70 demolition of Jordan, literally running away from their opposition on the back of a Shea Ili led performance, adding further to the already impressive international reputation of the Tall Blacks.
There were concerns of a slow start after a four-day break since their last game, but this young side quickly dispelled any such concerns with a 21-12 opening quarter that set the tone for the match, with a high-octane offence backed up by lock down defence.
Point guard Ili was in one of those moods, lightening quick when driving to the basket, making good decisions with the ball and his usual non-stop nuisance on defence for a personal haul of 19 points, 13 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals – with just two turnovers on the night.
He was not alone however, with the entire cast of players stepping up and playing to their roles superbly, Tohi Smith-Milner had 19 points and 7 boards in 19 minutes of action off the bench, Finn Delany continues to shine at the business end of the tournament with 17 points and 9 boards and there were strong contributions from Sam Timmins (9 points, 11 boards), Jordan Ngatai (10 points) and Reuben Te Rangi (9 points, 7 assists) and Derone Raukawa (9 points).
Tall Blacks Assistant Coach Ross McMains was delighted with the continuing maturity of this young group.
“The guys came out from the start with the right amount of energy and sustained it through the game, with this group when they do that and play smart, we are in a really good place.”
The quick start was consolidated but Jordan were not going away, with a succession of three pointers from Abdeen getting them back in the contest early in the second quarter, before a strong finish to the half saw New Zealand back out by 12.
But every time New Zealand stretched Jordan, they came back with a run of their own and kept the contest alive – at least temporarily. It was almost as if the Tall Blacks were doing what they had to, before putting on the afterburners on in a stunning final quarter attack that saw Jordan outclassed.
McMains was impressed with the showing of Ili, but it was not the stat sheet that grabbed the attention of the USA based coach, rather it was his developing leadership qualities.
“The key thing about Shea right now is being a leader, that is what he has become and grown and showed a tremendous amount of poise tonight through the ups and downs of that game, he stayed in his place and lifted our team at key times, he was great.
“The word poise comes up, Nenad mentioned it in the middle of the third quarter, he said wow, for a team so young this group is tremendously poised. They are calm in chaotic situations and that has been really impressive and carried us through some tough times.”
McMains was also keen to point out the role players in the side and the contribution that everyone is making at certain times in a game, whether on defence, offence or through leadership.
“That is a credit to this group, their humility and togetherness and their willingness to play for each other. We have communicated to each of them how we want them to impact the game and each of them has accepted that and thrives on their role every single night.”
Next up is the old foe Australia in the semifinal, and McMains says this young team is ready to embrace that challenge just as they have each one so far in Beirut.
“Australia will be exciting, that is what everyone in this room wants, it is going to be a fun match up, we have a day and a half to get ready for them and it is going to be great.”
It is incredible to think that such a young team finds themselves in the medal rounds and while there is no doubt that the unbeaten Australian’s will be the toughest opponent so far, there is equally little doubt now that this youthful side will show no fear against the green and gold, at 6am Sunday morning New Zealand time.
Tall Blacks 98 - Ili 19 points, 13 assists; Milner-Smith 19 points 7 rebounds; Delany 17 points 9 rebounds;
Jordan 70 - Abdeen 24, Hussein 14