The MBO Tall Blacks showed they are indeed a team to be reckoned with at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China, with a comfortable 93-83 win over higher ranked Montenegro in Nanjing tonight, controlling the game throughout and this time overcoming a third quarter stumble to close out easy winners.
Once again the New Zealanders were led by Corey Webster and Isaac Fotu, with both coming up big when needed most. Webster posting 25 points including 6 of 8 from deep while also stuffing the rest of the stat line with 7 assists and 6 rebounds, while Fotu showed no fear against NBA caliber big men with his 20 points and 7 rebounds, with only friendly fire from Tohi Smith-Milner threatening damage to the Treviso power forward.
The Europeans threw everything at New Zealand, with both teams losing their opening Group F encounters, the loser would in effect consign themselves to missing the top 16 and despite trying at every opportunity to disrupt and slow down the fast-paced Kiwis, they ultimately had no answer.
Isaac Fotu was calm after the win, expressing the belief throughout the team that they belong very much at the top table of the global game.
“That is not a surprise at all, we felt like we were the better team, better coached and I think we came out and showed that. We kept our cool, they came on a run in that third quarter, but we showed some character and came out with a win.
“I think that shows the character of this team, it just shows an accumulation of everything we have worked on in camp. We did our stuff out there, executed well and came out with a win.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing though, with turnovers keeping the Europeans in the game, especially in the first half, something Fotu acknowledged as a ‘work-on’.
“Turnovers was the biggest thing, not being able to build on a lead that we got a couple of times which good teams are able to do, so we have to work on that. With our style of play some turnovers are expected but we need to clean that up a bit.”
The 24-year-old loved the physical challenge against more often than not bigger opponents, with the biggest blow ironically the one he suffered as a result of a collision with his own teammate as they both looked to secure a vital rebound.
“I love the physicality of the game, I love banging bodies with the big dogs, Greece has some big bodies as well, so I am looking forward to banging with them as well.
“The head is a bit sore but during the game the adrenalin kept me going, it might be a bit sore later, I was hit with friendly fire.”
Webster started the game on fire for New Zealand, draining his first 4 triples, easing New Zealand out to 31-26 at the first quarter break, it was only early foul trouble for the Breakers guard that slowed his scoring down. The New Zealanders were at times their own worst enemies, with too many turnovers and soft fouls limiting their halftime lead to nine points, when it could have been closer to 20.
The third quarter has been the issue for the Tall Blacks on tour and so it proved again, with the lead cut to just one heading into the fourth, with Montenegro taking the lead midway through the final ten minutes. The response however was superb, with Fotu returning with his head heavily bandaged after the collision with Smith-Milner, and with Corey Webster, Rob Loe and Alex Pledger all taking turns to dive full length on loose possession, this was a game they were not going to lose.
With Montenegro losing their cool and collecting three technical fouls in total on the evening – two in the first half to coach Zvezdan Mitrovic as he continued to chip the referees, the Tall Blacks kept calm heads to close the game out, with the margin in the end flattering the losers and sending the New Zealanders into a David and Goliath battle with group heavyweights Greece on Thursday night.
The supporting cast behind Webster and Fotu was lengthy, with Tai Webster picking up 11 points, 5 assists and 5 rebounds, Rob Loe 10 points and 4 rebounds and Shea Ili a typically busy night at both ends of the floor with 10 points, six assists and 3 rebounds. The entire roster picked up the intensity on defence especially, responding to that rallying cry from Head Coach Paul Henare after the opening night defeat to Brazil.
New Zealand now play Greece on Thursday night, knowing that to keep their fate in their own hands they must defeat the world number 8 ranked team, including NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Anything less will most certainly risk their progression into the round of 16, while Brazil play Montenegro.
• MBO Tall Blacks 93 (C Webster 25pts 7 assists 6 rebounds, Fotu 20 pts, 7 rebounds, Ili 10 pts 6 assists, T Webster 11 points 5 rebounds 5 assists, Loe 10 pts)
• Montenegro 83 (Ivanovic 18, Vucevic 15, Dubljevic 13, Popovic 13)
• FIBA World Cup official website: http://www.fiba.basketball/basketballworldcup/2019
• Tall Blacks news: https://nz.basketball/category/tall-blacks/
• Tall Blacks schedule: https://nz.basketball/national-teams/tall-blacks/schedule/
• Read more about Tū Kaha: https://nz.basketball/the-meaning-of-tu-kaha-and-the-tall-blacks-culture/