Tall Blacks Win Thriller!

Tall Blacks Win Thriller!

The Tall Blacks won a thriller in Bilbao to give themselves a shot at progressing to the knock out stage of the FIBA World Cup, defeating Finland 67-65 in a game of hugely contrasting fortunes. At the time of writing the New Zealanders are now just awaiting other results in Pool C, with the United States needing to defeat Ukraine to ensure the Tall Blacks safe passage to Barcelona.

It was a game of swings as first the New Zealanders came out and took charge early in the game to establish a lead of 20 points early in the third quarter as the Fins had no answer to the Tall Blacks energy and all round contribution from a fiercely determined roster fighting for their lives. The second half however was to prove a wildly contrasting affair, with the Laplanders dominating without ever retaking the lead in a frenetic final few minutes.

Isaac Fotu was the spark that fired up the first half bench led effort from the Tall Blacks, with his 14 points and 6 boards leading an incredible 35 point contribution from the Tall Blacks second unit. With Mika Vukona in early foul trouble with two soft calls against the Tall Blacks defensive leader, Fotu was called from the bench and answered as only he knows how, crashing the boards and finding his range from inside and with a number of soft hand finishes.

The Finnish defence was shutting down New Zealand’s go to outside shooter in Kirk Penney, but the Tall Blacks kept the ball moving and looked to other options, with Everard Bartlett, the Webster brothers and Lindsay Tait all taking responsibility in a balanced first half effort.

The Fins at times proved too much for New Zealand’s defence in the low post, with Lee winning most of his physical confrontations, but they were otherwise forced into less than ideal looks at the basket by the Tall Blacks smothering defence.

Rebounding again proved to be a good barometer of the game’s fortunes, with New Zealand dominating the first half boards to the tune of 17-9, in the process scoring 12 second chance points to frustrate Finland and halt any hint of a run, in the process keeping the large Finnish crowd quiet.

The Tall Blacks threatened to take the game away from Finland early in the third, opening up a lead as big as 20 points on the back of five early points from the up until then quiet Kirk Penney. But the Fins came back strongly at the end of the quarter, closing back to a 12 point deficit heading into the final quarter, knowing it was to be a final ten minutes for one of these two teams in the tournament.

That momentum stayed with the Finland team early in the final quarter, on the back of two Lee layups and some offensive misfiring from the Tall Blacks, the lead was down to eight points and the noise in the arena went up behind the Europeans. The energy stayed with the Finnish side from that point as they finally found some focus on defence against a now tiring New Zealand offence.

The final few minutes had more than its share of big moments, from Kirk Penney’s clutch three to missed layups, a huge charge call against Finland (Vukona putting his body on the line), and an unsportsmanlike foul called on Jarrod Kenny that handed the Fins the chance to take the lead on the next possession. They couldn’t however breach that mental and scoreboard barrier, despite having the last possession of the game and a contested look to take the game into overtime, the ball came up short and the Tall Blacks came up big when it counted most.

Isaac Fotu led all scorers in a coming of age performance for the 20 year old, with 18 points and 8 rebounds while Mika Vukona was a constant warrior in the face of the Finnish team, playing (as always) like his life depended on it for 12 rebounds, 5 points and 3 assists. This was again though a trademark deep effort from the Tall Blacks, with Lindsay Tait huge at crucial times with 6 points and 5 assists.

With the win in the bag Nenad Vucinic will forgive his team the second half wobbles as the intensity of the past few days took a toll, this being the 5th game in 6 days in a crazy schedule that is testing all sides physical and mental toughness at this World Cup. All eyes will now be on the Ukraine v USA match up and hopes that a hotel booking is required in Barcelona for a match up in the round of 16.

New Zealand 67
Fotu 18, Penney 11, C Webster 8
Finland 65
Lee 17, Koponen 13
H/T 44-32

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