The Tall Blacks have beaten a determined Saudi Arabia side in Dammam this morning, with a 80-65 victory in their first game of the FIBA World Cup Qualifiers Second Round.
Playing Saudi Arabia for the first time in international play, the Kiwis used a strong 28-6 second quarter to build a 55-25 lead heading into the half, then fought off a spirited second-half comeback by the home team to remain unbeaten in World Cup Qualifier games (5-0) this year.
Shea Ili led the Kiwis with 14 points and 8 assists, while Ben Gold had a solid 13 & 7 off the bench and Isaac Fotu registered 12 & 7. Ethan Rusbatch scored 11 on 3-8 shooting from downtown, while Reuben Te Rangi had 10 and Tohi Smith-Milner chipped in 8 points.
For Saudi Arabia, Khalid Abdel Gabar scored 22 points and 8 rebounds while Mathna Almarwani scored 16 as the only two players in double figures.
Coach Pero Cameron went with a starting line-up of veterans Fotu, Ili, Te Rangi, Ngatai, Smith-Milner; Ili controlling the action early with a layup and a four-point play to help build an 11-4 lead. The Kiwis looked smooth in the first 10 minutes, with Fotu controlling the boards, Rusbatch draining a pair of threes and even a bit of showtime from Te Rangi; his behind the back pass setting up Ngatai in the corner for a triple.
Despite the lead, Kiwis would be concerned by Saudi Arabia’s ability to get to the rim – despite their small stature – thanks to a few defensive lapses from the New Zealand side. The Tall Blacks took a 10-point lead into the quarter, with Ili doing the most damage thanks to his 10 points & 3 assists.
The second period went all New Zealand’s way, as they opened the quarter with a 7-0 run – capped off by Gold going coast to coast with the layup. The 6’10” Gold played a huge role in the team’s dominance this quarter thanks to his 11 points and 4 rebounds, helping the Tall Blacks to build a 46-21 mid-way through the quarter fuelled by an impressive 19-2 run.
The end of the first half saw the Kiwis with an imposing 55-25 lead, holding Saudi Arabia to 6 points in the period and preventing them from making a single shot from outside the arc over the first two quarters. The shooting percentages told the story of the game; the Tall Blacks shooting 59% versus 39% from the home side.
But the third quarter was a different story for Saudi Arabia, as they came out of the locker room with an aggressive mentality in the second half and playing like a completely different team. Compounding this, New Zealand went cold from the field in the quarter – held to 2 points in the first three minutes as they were out-scored 9-2 overall.
Saudi Arabia’s improved play reduced the Tall Black’s lead to 15 midway through the third, with the Kiwi’s unable to hit their outside shots; going 0-10 in the period until Rusbatch finally converted from downtown with a minute left. Flipping the script from the second quarter, the Tall Blacks were outscored 24-9 in the third to take a 64-49 lead into the final period.
A 6-2 run by Tall Blacks to open the fourth provided a much-needed confidence boost for the Kiwis, with Ili pushing the pace and setting up teammates for easy looks. Saudi Arabia were able to keep pace with New Zealand throughout the quarter with several drives of their own and a few triples, but the Kiwis held on for the 80-65 victory.
Despite the win, the Tall Blacks will see plenty of areas for improvement when they take on Jordan on Monday – primarily limiting their turnovers (10), improving their three point shooting percentages (27%) and defending better both inside and out. After registered a 55 point first half and then being held to 25 in the second half – with Saudi Arabia outscoring the Kiwis 40-25 during that time – Coach Cameron will look for a much-improved effort from his experienced side heading into the next game.
Next up for the Tall Blacks is a WCQ date with Jordan at Auckland’s Eventfinda Stadium on Mon 29 August. Get tickets at https://tinyurl.com/yncnf83n
New Zealand 80 – Ili 14 PTS & 8 AST| Gold 13 PTS & 7 REB | Fotu 12 PTS & 7 REB | Rusbatch 11 PTS | Ili 10 PTS | Te Rangi 10 PTS | Smith-Milner 8 PTS | Ngatai 6 PTS | McCullough 3 PTS | Le’afa 3 PTS
Saudi Arabia 65 – Abdel Gabar 22 PTS & 8 REB | M. Almarwani 16 PTS | M. Almarwani 7 PTS & 5 REB| Kadi 7 PTS & 7 REB
Quarter scores: 27-19, 55-25, 64-49, 80-65.
Full box score: https://tinyurl.com/3vbmz6yp