Inspired young Tall Blacks come up agonizingly short

After yesterday’s heavy defeat against China, Tall Blacks Head Coach Paul Henare asked his young charges for improvement. He got plenty, but not quite enough to secure a win against Lithuania at the Kunshan International Championship as a shot on the buzzer came up just short in a 66-67 defeat.

New Zealand led for the majority of the game, looking much more comfortable on the ball and being patient with their offence, keeping their composure even when shots weren’t falling. Finn Delany returned to the lineup after missing the clash with China, albeit both he and Derone Raukawa were limited in their minutes as they manage minor injuries with the FIBA Asia Cup on the horizon.

Head Coach Paul Henare was a mix of emotions after the game, citing how proud he was of the way his team learned so many of their lessons from the night before, and yet in typically competitive mode, he was not satisfied with the loss – he never is.

“We are trying to encourage good habits and one of those is ‘don’t get used to a losing mentality. So for us, awesome improvement and really proud of the guys for that and that is what we will focus on. But we also have to realize that every time we step on the floor, we are after a result.”

While clearly not 100%, having Delany suited up made a big difference to the rotations tonight for Henare.

“It really did, you take Finn out and we are already pretty small, he is a big solid boy and plays hard for us. I think for him to have that confidence and get out on the floor and run up and down, he and Derone have been struggling with their niggles so that gives the others confidence as well.

“I thought at times tonight we played really good basketball, we shared the ball well and got good open shots and our percentages reflected the fact we got some really good looks. Whenever we went outside of our lane individually or as a team and tried things not within our capabilities we got hurt. We still had 22 turnovers in the game, that came back to hurt us. Probably the biggest difference was the rebounding, allowing them to get 15 offensive boards and keep the second chance points ticking over.”

Shea Ili led the team superbly, finishing with a game high 20 points and five boards to go with his world class defence.

“We are trying to give Shea that confidence. Last year he was our third option at point guard at the Olympic qualifying tournament. It is a shift in mentality, he is our number one option and one of our better decision makers and can play at a high level. He can still give us intensity on defence as well as play in both ways, so I thought he was good.”

It was James Hunter proving effective early on, picking up 11 points on 4 of 5 shooting as the Southland Shark and newly signed SKYCITY Breaker went to work in the paint. He received good support from Shea Ili (9 points), with the point guard shaking off the ankle sprain from the night before to put in a typically busy and energetic display.

First half turnovers numbered just 6, a huge improvement on yesterday’s loose display, and with better control the confidence grew, in particular on defence, as the New Zealanders earned the right to get settled and slow the Lithuanians down in transition, with the result a 34-30 lead in a tight defensive tussle.

The second half saw a few stumbles reappear at both ends of the floor, with turnovers coming at crucial times, allowing Lithuania to sneak ahead. But on each of those occasions the young New Zealanders found a way back, first with back to back threes from Ethan Rusbatch, then a three-point play from Sam Timmins, and in the final minute a corner three from Ili on a miracle pass from Rueben Te Rangi that drew the teams level.

With 8 seconds to play Lithuania went to the line with the scores tied at 66, they made the first, New Zealand rebounded the second and Ili hared off up court, driving into the paint and Lithuanian traffic, only to see his effort come back off the rim as the buzzer sounded, cruelly denying the Tall Blacks a memorable win.

Henare likes what he is seeing so far from his team, results aside there is a big picture at work on this tour, with short and longer-term goals in mind for individuals and the team as they find their way in the new world of Asia.

“Just playing together, getting used to each other and understanding the level they need to be at. This is all preparation for the FIBA Asia Cup, that is what we are targeting, as long as we can make improvements and play at a good level along the way. We need to recognize that and focus on the good points, because there was a lot to take out of that one tonight.”

The Tall Blacks will round out the Kunshan International Championship against unbeaten Angola on Monday night, 8pm NZT, with the Africans defeating China in the early game tonight.

Tall Blacks 66
Ili 20, Hunter 13, Te Rangi 7

Lithuania 67
Evaldas 14, Donatas Taro 13, Vaitk 12, Mindau 12