Ten things we learnt from the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Auckland.

1 Sport can be cruel.

The Tall Ferns actually achieved their goal of winning two games by beating Korea and Philippines. But the surprise came at the start when Korea beat China by one point, a big upset.

Rather than celebrate the Tall Ferns memorable 69-65 win against the highly regarded Korean team, many of the Tall Ferns were left in tears at the conclusion of the game knowing their Olympic dream is over for another four years.

Feeling the pain as much as anyone was veteran guard Natalie Taylor.

“We talked about how hard it is to win at this level. It’s exciting for our programme that we were able to get a win, but it’s disappointing that we have been stopped in our tracks for the Olympics. I’m also really proud of the girls and the performance,” said Taylor after the game.

2 The Tall Ferns programme is on the rise.

“Our progress and our standards are rising,” said Tall Ferns Head Coach Guy Molloy.

To emphasise the point it is only necessary to compare results in Auckland with those achieved at the Asia Cup in India just six weeks ago.

In India, the Tall Ferns beat the Philippines by 18, lost to Korea by 6 and also lost to China by 23. In Auckland, the losing margin against China was again 23 (94-71) but the Philippines winning margin was pushed out to 57 (111-54) and the Korean result reversed – New Zealand winning 69-65.

As former Tall Ferns captain Leanne Walker said, “I like what Guy is doing with the team, and what he is implementing. When we had Carrie Graf and Tom Maher as head coaches they utilised the strengths that we had. We didn’t have the height so we had to come up with game plans that suited our team rather than mould to a certain style of play.

“New Zealand’s developing that now, a New Zealand style of play around what our athletes are capable of. I like that concept and I definitely like what Guy is trying to do with the programme. He also puts different players in the team when they have trips to Taiwan or Japan which is building our player base and I think that is important too”.

3 The Tall Ferns are blessed with a squad that boasts a range of experience and a captain that leads by example.

“We have some wonderful veterans in Nat (Taylor), Mic (Cocks) and Toni (Farnworth) who played their hearts out tonight. We’ve got an emerging group with people such as Kalani (Purcell), Penina (Davidson) and you can see where they are going in the future. Then we have some babies at the bottom end of it who just need to learn from this experience and soak it up. I just hope that they have done this and we can sort of bank this and keep raising the standard,” said Molloy.

Kalani Purcell was once again inspirational against Korea with a stats line that read 16 points (6/10FG), 10 rebounds and 6 assists. Her +/- was a game-high +16.
Aged just 24 she looks destined to be the Tall Ferns captain for many years ahead.

4 Youth on their side.

Take out the veteran trio of Micaela Cocks, Toni Farnworth and Natalie Taylor, all aged 30 something and the average age of the rest of the squad is under 24. With such a youthful line-up the Tall Ferns can surely only get better during the coming years. In contrast, the Korean team had five players aged 30 or older and just two of their players younger than 25.

5 We can host great women’s basketball events in New Zealand

After years of travelling to far-flung places like Bengaluru, Nantes, Atsugi and Taipei to represent New Zealand, the Tall Ferns players relished the opportunity to play in front of family, friends and New Zealand basketball fans. For Chevannah Paalvast it literally was a homecoming.

“I pretty much grew up at Trusts Arena. I was probably playing Under 14s when Trusts opened. My family live about 15 minutes away so that’s nice for them to come and watch,” she said.

“It’s very exciting to play in New Zealand it doesn’t happen very often,” said Micaela Cocks.

“It’s terrific not only for our supporters, but also it enables our families to come and watch and not to have to fly overseas to watch us play for our country,” she added.

It’s worth noting the likes of ATEED, Major Events New Zealand, Sport New Zealand and sponsors Sky Sport who also backed this event financially to help lift the women’s game and leverage the opportunity to see more girls getting inspired, active and into the sport. ATEED also wanted coverage of the event that showed Auckland as a destination overseas and an opportunity to see basketball in Auckland. Mai FM and Stuff came to the party as great promotional partners.

6 Exceptional crowd and multi-cultural support for basketball in NZ.

In addition to the support for New Zealand being strong, the Korean, Chinese and Filipino ex-pat communities turned out in force creating a wonderful sporting environment enjoyed and appreciated by the players from all four teams.

Philippines Head Coach Patrick Aquino summed it up nicely.

“We are honoured that so many Filipino fans came out and supported us. We did not get the results we wanted but the players gave 100% effort and I think the supporters could see that.”

7 Legacy and Girls Got Game.

Despite commitments to the international programme a number of the Tall Ferns players took time out of their busy schedules to deliver the Girls Got Game programme to a number of schools in Auckland and Hamilton in the week prior to the qualifying tournament.

The Girls Got Game programme is an initiative designed as an introduction to basketball to get more young girls playing basketball.

“The Tall Ferns really hope that women’s basketball gets a huge push and momentum surge and I know the players are really hoping that their efforts have inspired a bunch of young players to say I’m going to play basketball and make it my sport, I want to get better and become a Tall Fern,” said Molloy.

The opportunity was also used to host a coaches conference, with regional coaches that were part of the Basketball New Zealand programme exposed to great development opportunities including a chance to watch Guy Molloy prepare his team.

8 Kiwis do it well.

The Qualifying Tournament in Auckland yet again underlined the ability of the New Zealand basketball community to organise and showcase an international event. The Basketball New Zealand staff and an accompanying army of volunteers, with the support of major funders, produced three days of enjoyable entertainment. The event also exposed the visiting teams to New Zealand culture through quality hosting.

“We want visiting teams and officials to get a sense of who we are as New Zealanders, we want to share our culture, and foster their appreciation for our nation and our people. From this, opportunities can grow both for the game, the federations and for brand New Zealand,” said Basketball Chief Executive Iain Potter.

9 Increased media presence and Sky Sport

We are starting to take it for granted, but again Sky Sport took live basketball into the living rooms of New Zealand households. The insightful commentary team of Andrew Mulligan and former Tall Fern Donna Wilkins complimented the thrilling action on the court. Add to that the support from Sky Sport News and Courtside, and the Sky presence was unsurpassed.

Radio Sport did daily interviews and sent reporters to media opportunities. There was great early support from the likes of Mai FM, Newsroom, Newshub, Stuff and Radio New Zealand. Seven Sharp, Maori TV and Te Karare did one feature piece each. Frustratingly there were no early features from NZ Herald or One News, who only covered the results of each match.

There was also strong interest from the New Zealand based Chinese, Korean and Filipino news companies.

10 The Yao Ming factor

It’s not every day that a genuine sporting legend, recognised worldwide, visits our shores and to have the former NBA superstar in attendance added significance to the event. Now Chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association, Yao Ming’s presence demonstrated how important the Chinese regarded the Qualifying Tournament. Keeping the adoring Chinese fans from requesting selfies with the big man was another matter!

Surely it won’t be another four years until the Tall Ferns grace the court in New Zealand again.