Tall Blacks go down in opening game in China

The Tall Blacks were well beaten 77-53 tonight by a resurgent China, who – for many reasons, are a different side at home, and certainly were much improved from the team that New Zealand competed so well with, in two scrimmages just last week in Papakura.

It was a baptism of fire of sorts for the young New Zealand team that featured five debutants, and went in light with Finn Delany not risked due to a tight hamstring, with bigger games to come at the FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon next month.

That equation got tougher with injuries that saw Jordan Ngatai (ribs), Derone Raukawa (ankle) and Shea Ili (ankle) sitting at different times, although all made a return to the floor in the second half, with the most concern being Raukawa as he aggravated the ankle injury from the New Zealand Select Tour.

Head Coach Paul Henare was less concerned about injuries, preferring to leave that to the medical team, and more worried about turnovers. His young charges gifted possession 31 times, a number that never allowed the Tall Blacks to settle on defence or find any offensive rhythm.

“It is a tough lesson – anytime you walk away from a game with 31 turnovers,” said Henare. “We can look across all positions and find areas for big improvement. That is something for us as coaching staff, to put players in positions where they can play to their strengths and we will look to adjust that moving forward.

“Maybe we had a false sense of security because we played them pretty well at home in the comforts of our own environment and we come here and they are a different team, they play with all sorts of confidence and really got after us with their defence and forced us into the turnovers. They had 18 steals and that puts huge pressure on our defence and limits our chances to score as well.

“The guys are hurting, they will be ready and waiting to get back on the floor tomorrow. I look forward to their response and see what they have learned from this experience.”

Down 41-26 at halftime, the Tall Blacks showed a glimpse of their potential when dialed in, with eight straight points on the back of two Ethan Rusbatch triples seeing China call time out. Adjustments by China and a curious call from the referees halted that momentum though. Shea Ili was fouled with New Zealand in the bonus, then the referees called a tech on the New Zealand guard and in the ensuing reset, somehow New Zealand didn’t get to the charity stripe, with China shooting a free throw and getting the ball.

But this was not a game that swung on any single moments, New Zealand were outplayed and out muscled at times by a resurgent China determined to play well in front of their home fans.

While disappointed with the result and at times the lack of ball control his players, Henare was not doubting the effort, in particular highlighting the introduction of five new players to Tall Black family, with Isaac Letoa, James Hunter, Sam Timmins, Dyson King-Hawea and Luke Aston all representing their country for the first time, with 18-year-old Junior Tall Black Letoa playing 14 minutes at the point with Ili and Raukawa limited in their minutes.

“I thought everyone that stepped on the floor, they tried, they fought and they battled. It is a big step up for some of these guys. Isaac played the game at a great pace, he controlled the ball well and he always defends really well – that is one of the best things he does. Offensively he had a calm way about him and dealing with the pressure and his decisions, he only had one turnover in his time on the floor, that will be good for his confidence as well.”

New Zealand did win the rebounding count 41-39, but in almost all other stats were second best, with 31 turnovers, and a 15.7% return (3 of 19) from the three-point line not enough to keep them in the contest.

The Tall Blacks will be back in action tomorrow when they play Lithuania (11:30pm NZT), while China will play Angola in the early game.

China Blue 77
Han de Jun 13, Guo AiLun 13, Hu Jin Qiu 11

Tall Blacks 53
Rusbatch 9, Ngatai 6, Te Rangi 6, Aston 6, Letoa 6, Raukawa 6