The Tall Blacks already know that they’ve just got to take care of business. They qualified first from their initial group and are sitting pretty in first in their second stage group right now too. With them only needing to finish in the top three in their second stage group – top four if hosts and automatic qualifiers China place ahead of them - the Tall Blacks should honestly have no trouble making it to the 2019 World Cup. In fact with the best fourth-placed finisher across the two groups also going through, it’d be way more difficult to miss out from here than it would be to qualify.
The Tall Blacks know a thing or two about difficulties though. They’ve spent their latest training camp in Qatar because they couldn’t afford to hold one all the way back in Aotearoa. But the Qatari federation offered to pay for the thing as long as there were friendly games involved and, mate, that only sweetened the deal with the first game of the final stage of qualifying coming up against Syria in Beirut (since playing in Syria’s not really an option).
Funding for Basketball NZ’s not been up to much lately, since those things are based on performances at Olympic and major tournaments and that’s a rather difficult thing to achieve in the competitive world of international basketball. Opportunities like the one Qatar offered don’t necessarily have to be used as a stick to beat the financial decisions of High Performance Sport with, there’s not enough money for everyone to go around. This is the reality in New Zealand and teams/organisations have to be creative about it. The Tall Blacks were. Shout out to Qatari money… Manchester City fans know what’s up with that.
By the way, great quote from Paul Henare on all this:
“I'm not sure I can stand here like my companion Steve Hansen and claim we're one of New Zealand's biggest brands, we are a good brand but we're well off the pace in terms of funding. With commitments to those tournaments comes more and more financial responsibilities, so while from the on court point of view as a coach and former player I think it's outstanding, from a resources point of view we are well short."
Anyway, on to the qualifier against Syria. With Corey Webster and Tom Abercrombie both missing from the squad you’d be forgiven for thinking that scoring might be an issue. Not to where they couldn’t beat a team like Syria but maybe to where they struggle to put them away. Nah instead they had their first 100+ scoring night of the qualifying campaign that wasn’t against Hong Kong.
You could possibly say that was the case in the first half. Superior defence meant that Syria weren’t getting close but the Tall Blacks did miss their first four shots and started 1/6 from the field. Then after a few started dropping, Shea Ili went and missed three straight from the line. He’s normally pretty good with those things. More than six minutes into the game it was only 12-7 to NZ. But Jordan Ngatai chipped in with a quick five points and a reverberating block and then the kiwis started to pull away. Up by 8 after 1Q, up by 19 after 2Q, up by 31 after 3Q and up by 41 at the final buzzer.
Paul Henare went with a starting line-up of Shea Ili, Tai Webster, Reuben Te Rangi, Rob Loe and Isaac Fotu. That might explain the early shooting, though once Tai Webster got going he was all goods. They all were, really. TW scored 15 points on 5/11 shooting, Ili had 16 on 6/9 shooting and Fotu bagged 5/9 for 16 points. Rob Loe was 1/8 on the night however the bench all chipped in and somehow the Breakers ended up shooting 50% from deep, 16 of 32. Tai Webster, a mixed bag jump-shooter in college but increasingly becoming a real gunner from range, shot a sizzling 5/6 from 3pt. That’ll win you a game vs Syria on any day of the week. 107-66 was the final score.
Every TBs player got at least 10 minutes and nobody played more than 22. That was always going to be important with a long haul back to Rotorua to play Lebanon less than three days later – a time period more than half of which was spent in transit. So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the Tall Blacks started so horrifically. Perhaps it should’ve been expected. But, damn, this was a bloody shocking opening quarter.
Let’s just chuck it out there straight, the Tall Blacks scored seven points in the opening quarter of a home game. They trailed 18-7 at the buzzer. It’s not that they weren’t competing, defensively they were pretty good outside of one or two physical threats that the Lebanese had to offer – specifically the 6’11 Ater James Majok, who has a wingspan so wide he could reach across the political divide – but they were rebounding pretty excellently, playing with energy on defence. However a few dumb turnovers did sneak into the offensive performance in that first half especially, silly passes to nobody and miscommunications and the like. But that’s not the worst thing. The worst thing was that the Tall Blacks shot 0/6 from deep in the first quarter and 2/18 from the field all up.
That, quite frankly, is pathetic. This team was missing a couple of decent shooters but Corey Webster had been unexpectedly called up at the last minute and chuck in his brother, Rob Loe, Isaac Fotu… it’s not the best shooting team imaginable but they should’ve had more than enough to work some decent shots. Missed threes can happen, the real indication that this was going to be a long night was in all the missed layups.
There was a brief surge when Majok took to the bench – not in point but in rebounds - and unsurprisingly Majok therefore ended up playing all but a minute and a half of this thing. What kept the Tall Blacks going was their defence. Guys like Mika Vukona and Reuben Te Rangi offered the grand sum of zero field goals but they hustled like crazy. Tai Webster should be in that category too. After being outscored 18-7 in the first quarter they then reversed that to be tied at 25-all at the break.
To be fair with it all, Lebanon are a very decent team. They came into this game tied for first place with New Zealand in the group. They have some weapons, Majok being one of them, Elias Rustom another as he played a huge part in extending Lebanon’s lead in the second half. But at HT they’d scored 25 points and 22 of them had come in the paint. Bit of a simple fix, really. At times like the kiwis really missed Alex Pledger.
Hey but they slugged it out. Shea Ili kept going at it all day and was able to get at least some of his driving layups to fall, while Corey Webster showed his class with a couple long balls despite coming in at short notice. The Tall Blacks should win every single game they ever play in which they keep an opponent to 60 total points, a decent glimpse there at the effectiveness of the defence even on such a trying night. It never got smooth or simple. The turnovers lingered until the end and missed free throws consistently made a mess of it.
But so did Lebanon, and over there they’re probably looking at this game like a massive missed opportunity. In the final 8:04 of this game, they blew a six-point lead to lose by three. During that time they shot 0/4 from 3pt, 1/4 from 2pt and 4/8 from FT with six turnovers. They kinda bottled it, to be honest, and that’s the main reason the Tall Blacks had any chance to sneak this game at all. Sure a few of those turnovers were defensive efforts, shot clock violations and traps, but if they make all four of those missed free throws then they’d have won. As it was, Shea Ili hit a couple freebies with 22 seconds to play for the lead and Reuben Te Rangi hit a couple more to complete the scoring – huge from him to make back to back free throws in the clutch when he’d missed all six field goal attempts.
Thus the Tall Blacks snuck a gutsy victory and now World Cup qualification is looking extremely likely. Top scorer was Elias Rustom who shot 8/12 for 19 points. Majok also scored 16 points with 11 rebounds on 4/7 shooting. Take those two out of the equation and Lebanon shot 10/38 from the field. On the other side we were looking at Shea Ili with 14 points (5/11 FG), Tai Webster with 13 points (4/17 FG), 7 rebounds and 4 assists, Corey Webster with 11 points (4/12 FG) and Isaac Fotu with 10 points (3/8 FG) and 7 rebounds.
Lebanon held the lead for more than thirty minutes. The Tall Blacks held the lead for three minutes and fifteen seconds of gameplay. They also, crucially, hauled in 25 offensive rebounds from 55 missed field goal attempts. 27.6% shooting from the field and somehow they won. If you say nothing else, you have to say that this team has some serious guts.
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