Kiwis narrowly miss playoffs at 3×3 U23 World Cup

The New Zealand Men’s U23 3×3 team fell just short of the FIBA U23 World Cup quarter-finals after a heart-wrenching loss to Argentina in overtime, 18-17, and being defeated by the 2018 world champion Russian side, 22-14, in Lanzhou, China.

New Zealand was in its debut U23 3×3 World Cup performance and finished 11th (seeded 17th) following the final pool games.

Head Coach Piet Van Hasselt said there was a lot to take home from the event.

“The losses yesterday were very gutting, and this experience has given us a great taste in international 3×3 at the highest level. The guys and I are hungrier more than ever to improve our skills and tactics and do our bit to develop 3×3 in NZ. I’m very proud of the way the team came together quickly from all over the country and they set high expectations on our performances straight away. They were a pleasure to coach. Our goal was to create a legacy at this tournament, and hopefully NZ will go even better next time.”

NZ V Argentina: The Kiwis gave their all against the Argentine squad, defending the two-point area well – forcing them into an uncharacteristic 2/14 from deep. Argentina’s two key players were members of the gold medal winning 2018 Youth Olympics squad. The Kiwis got going early on the scoreboard through the hard driving work of Samuel Aruwa. They turned around a 4-5 deficit into a 9-5 lead following the first TV timeout and Taane Samuel scoring in the post and from deep. The speed of Argentina saw them claw the game back. A last second shot-clock long range bomb from Taylor Britt helped the Kiwis keep up the pace, 13-12. Argentina scored their first two-pointer with 1:45 left in the game to give them a 16-13 lead. NZ never gave up and held Argentina scoreless with Taane Samuel scoring from the post. Samuel Aruwa’s knuckle jumper rimmed out as time expired and overtime was called at 16-all. In 3×3 overtime, the first team to score two points is declared the winner. NZ battled it out and scored through Taane Samuel, but it was Argentina that slotted its fifth two-point attempt of overtime to prevail, 18-17.

NZ v Russia: New Zealand had a tight turnaround against Russia, but still controlled their playoff destiny if they were able to win. All of the four Russians are professional players on the FIBA 3×3 World Tour and are ranked #43-53 in the world of 3×3. Russia started out strongly, up 8-1 with a variety of scores. The Kiwis got going through a Samuel Aruwa two-pointer and a Taylor Britt driving lay-up and free throw to cut the deficit to 10-5. The Russians kept control of the game before they got into foul trouble and NZ got to the free throw line. NZ had some hope at 17-13, but the inside play of 6’8” Ilia Karpenkov and the outside shooting of Alexander Zuev, saw Russia get the win, 22-14.

NZ had a last chance opportunity to qualify for the quarter-final based on points count-back in the last game of their pool between Argentina and Slovenia, however it wasn’t to be with Argentina accounting for Slovenia, 19-16.

NZ, seeded 17th overall, finished third in their pool at 2-2, with wins over Slovenia (8th seed), 21-19, and Turkey (9th seed), 21-12, and losses to Argentina (16th seed), 18-17 (overtime) and Russia (1st seed), 22-14. Russia (4-0) and Argentina (3-1) progress to face Italy (3-1) and Ukraine (3-1) respectively in the quarter-finals.

The top two teams of each pool qualified for the quarter-finals on Sunday. Other teams to miss out on the playoffs include basketball powerhouses Lithuania, USA, Brazil and highly ranked 3×3 teams including Qatar (3rd seed) and Mongolia (4th seed).

The team quickly formed a bond with the USA team who have co-operated with other New Zealand 3×3 teams in the past under US Coach Joe Lewandowski. The team played a warm-up match which really helped the Kiwis gel together.

Taylor Britt and Taane Samuel had impressive 3×3 debuts picking up the game fast and exhibiting their flair and creativity to score against the heightened physicality in 3×3. Josh Aitcheson’s experience in 3×3 basketball was crucial to the team’s tactics and he fought hard on the boards and on defence. Samuel Aruwa provided plenty of Instagram worthy one on one moves that left defenders in a stand-still.

“I think we had a strong showing at the tournament. One shot going our way would’ve meant progressing to the quarter-finals. NZ has a good chance of doing well at this competition as we tend to adapt well to the physicality of the 3×3 game. I’m proud to have been a part of this trip and the team.” said Samuel Aruwa.

Team mate Taane Samuel shared that sentiment.

“Although the tournament didn’t end how we had expected, I still enjoyed every moment I spent on and off the court with the lads.

“What I’ve learned from 3×3 is that it is a lot more physically demanding than 5 on 5 basketball. You have to be outstandingly fit and mentally switched on at all times since the game doesn’t stop as often as the five-a-side game. The boys did an amazing job playing physical and trying to match that of the top ranked teams in the world,” said Taane Samuel.

Otago’s Josh Aitcheson, one of teh more experienced 3×3 players on the roester, felt the World Cup experience was invaluable for the New Zeaand programme.

“While we did not make it as far as we wanted, it was important to the team to be competitve in every game and prove that we as a country can punch well above our weight and ranking.

“The international experience at a World Cup can not be replicated. With all we have learned under our belt we are confident that we would be able to improve on our performance at future tournaments,” said Aitcheson.

“It was a great experience to be able to represent New Zealand at a World Cup. We got to go out there and compete against the top FIBA nations and show that we can beat the big teams,” said Taylor Britt.

The team flys back to NZ at the conclusion of the World Cup. Aitcheson will be back in 3×3 action early next month in Xiamen, China with the Otago University team at the FISU World University Cup. Britt returns to Perth where he is a development player with the Wildcats in the Australian NBL. 2019 Super City Rangers swingman Aruwa resumes his study at University of Auckland. 2019 Manwatu Jets forward Samuel returns to his residence in Wellington to prepare for the NBL season.