The MBO Tall Blacks rounded out the first phase of qualifying for the 2019 FIBA World Cup in style, defeating China 67-57 at a packed Spark Arena in Auckland, in a game that means so much more than just the points on offer as the team looks to qualify for the World Cup next year.
In an all-round team effort, the Tall Blacks were led by Isaac Fotu (15), Tom Abercrombie (14) and Rob Loe (13) in scoring, but the big plays came from throughout the roster, with indefatigable captain Mika Vukona the inspiration in a final quarter performance that will leave the Chinese players with nightmares of their visit to Auckland, while Loe added 10 boards in a career game in the black singlet.
But this was a game that screamed ‘statement’ in ways beyond just the result. It was played in front of a record near capacity Spark Arena Crowd of 8000 fans, it confirmed the Tall Blacks as one of the powerhouse teams of Asia with a win over China in front of no less than Yao Ming, and they achieved it all without being at full strength, with a several players committed to club action in other parts of the world.
China came out strongly and led 18-15 at the end of the first quarter, but the home side turned the screws in the second quarter to keep China to just 11 points for the ten minutes, to lead comfortably at the break.
China made their run late in the third, to take the lead late in the third quarter, but the Tall Blacks responded in style, locking the visitors down again in the final quarter on the back of inspirational plays from Vukona and a dagger three from Jarrod Kenny.
Head Coach Paul Henare spoke with great pride in his side’s ability to ramp up the intensity after the easy win over Hong Kong.
“I think from the start the guys knew, especially the ones that have been around for a long time, we have only got one or two that haven’t been in a similar environment where there is a lot on the line, so the guys were good. They bought into our messaging over the last few days as to what we were getting ready for.
“I am just super proud. There were a couple of times, China got off to a good start with good intent, and then at the end of the third when they took the lead. In those moments you rely on all the experience and all the things we talked about in camp, you rely on the leaders on the floor to get you out of those tough moments and I was extremely proud they were able to do that.”
Henare spoke with a strong sense of irony about his side’s ability to win the rebound count against a much bigger side.
“We have been winning rebounding counts against bigger teams for a long time now, for us it is not the size of these guys, it is the size of their hearts. We finished the game with our ‘massive’ five-man Isaac Fotu at 6’6” and ‘massive’ four-man Mika Vukona at 6’5”.
“Seriously though, to have a guy like Jack Salt to come in and be a big contributor in his first games in five years (this window), our game plan at the start was to leave him one on one with Wang and he made him work for everything. Rob Loe has been off-season since the Commonwealth Games and he found some rhythm and played some crucial minutes tonight.”
Perhaps best summing up the passion and togetherness of the Tall Blacks and how much culture means to the team, was news post game that Isaac Fotu had turned down an invite to the NBA Summer League with the Boston Celtics to say with the team and play in this one game.
Fotu said it was not a hard decision at all.
“This game was special to me, playing in my city in front of friends and family, just playing with this team. It is special to be with the players, the coaches and the staff, I just love coming back to play for this team and it made it extra special being at home. Every chance I get, I will be playing for the Tall Blacks.
“I thought about the decision for one or two seconds. I know how much I love playing for this team and to do so in front of friends and family, it was an easy call to make.”
Henare was humbled by the decision of Fotu, saying it underlined what the Tall Blacks is all about. With little government funding and with a high percentage of commercial backing coming from offshore brands, the team relies on culture and creating a special environment on which to build its success.
“It is unbelievable for that to be a no-brainer decision for Ike. That is what makes this team so special, when guys are willing to get out here and go to battle with their brothers. I know some of the guys not here really wanted to be here, but this is a special decision to make, the importance and pride that these guys have to play for their country is amazing.”
The team will now await other results to know the draw for the next and final group of qualifying. The Tall Blacks, China and Korea will cross over with Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, with the top three teams qualifying automatically for the World Cup in China next year, plus the best placed fourth place team from the two final groups. While the teams are known, the final order in the other pool will determine when and where the games are played, with the next window in early September this year.
MBO Tall Blacks 67 (Fotu 15, Abercrombie 14, Loe 13)
China 57 (Abudushalamu 23)