TBs Lose To Lithuania
Scott Preston, Stuff
There was no first-game upset for the NZ Tall Blacks as they fell 92-79 to Lithuania in their FIBA World Championship opener in Izmir.
Despite a game-high 37 points from shooting guard Kirk Penney, New Zealand fell victim to Lithuania’s high screen-and-roll and inside presence as forward Linas Kleiza went for 27 points and eight rebounds.
Kleiza, now with the Toronto Raptors, torched the Tall Blacks with 11-of-15 shooting from the field, including 3-of-5 on three-point attempts, and was assisted by 15 points from big man Paulius Jankunas and 14 points from Jonas Maciulis.
A second-quarter disaster, where the Tall Blacks were out-scored 25-10 and allowed Lithuania easy basket after easy basket, ultimately cost them the game. Although they made small runs in the third and fourth quarters, New Zealand could not find the big momentum-changing basket to seriously threaten down the stretch.
“We came out and didn’t execute defensively and that set the tone for us,” forward Tom Abercrombie said. “Giving up 92 points or whatever it was isn’t going to win you many games.
“I think we did enough offensively to win this game but it’s going to come down to what we can do defensively.”
Down 50-34 at halftime, New Zealand made a run in the third period as centre Alex Pledger provided a spark, coming off the bench to score five points and add some much needed solidity on the boards.
The Kiwis were able to get the deficit down to 10 points, 59-49, at the 5:45 mark in the third. Abercrombie followed with a tip block on Paulius Jankunas at the hoop, then Lindsay Tait made a pair of freebies to bring the Tall Blacks within single digits for the first time since early in the second period.
Still trailing by 11 points with a quarter remaining, New Zealand were able to cut Lithuania’s lead several times in the fourth but could not get over the eight-point hump until it was too late.
A crucial phase in the fourth quarter as the Tall Blacks closed within nine points and had Pledger on the foul-line and a chance to pull within seven, but he missed both; Abercrombie grabbed the offensive rebound, but missed the turnaround hook shot in the lane, and Lithuania then were able to stretch the gap back out to 13 points.
A steal and lay-in by Mika Vukona, who was New Zealand’s second-highest scorer with 19 points, with 2m 24s remaining briefly got the Tall Blacks within seven points, but Lithuania popped the ball into Jankunas, who went to work on an interior defence short on height and also burdened by foul trouble in this game.
Penney’s 37 points came on 10/20 shooting from the floor but the usually accurate NZ Breaker connected on just 1/9 on his long-range attempts. With the rangey Lithuanians on them all night, the Tall Blacks went an anemic 4/25 on threes, part of an overall off-night shooting, making 26/65 field goals.
Despite a 20-12 rebounding disadvantage at halftime, New Zealand were able to win the battle of the boards 38-35, thanks to 11 from Abercrombie before fouling out late and nine from Vukona, who also had the tough defensive assignment of guarding Kleiza most of the game.
The offensive meltdown the Tall Blacks can not afford to have if they want to win games at this tournament came to start the second as Lithuania scored 12 of the first 14 points to go ahead 37-26 at the five-minute mark. It got worse for New Zealand as Lithuania grew their biggest lead at 43-26 with three minutes to play until the half.
The Tall Blacks’ second quarter was summed up in the final seconds when guard Phill Jones showed his frustration at America referee Anthony Jordan, who had been particularly harsh on the Kiwis, for awarding Lithuania the ball out-of-bounds when it appeared to come off the Lithuanian player. With one second remaining, Kleiza drained a long three-pointer at the buzzer to send Lithuania into the locker room up 50-34.
Penney led all scorers with 17 points at the half, but was only 1/4 on his three-point attempts as part of an overall Tall Blacks shooting performance of 12/29 from the field and 3/12 outside the perimeter. New Zealand were guilty of forcing long-range shots or having to rush an attempt late in the shot clock when Lithuania shut down their first, second and sometimes third options.
Lithuania led New Zealand 25-24 after a first quarter which saw the lead change 11 times, with no team leading by more than five points. Of their 25 points, Lithuania had a whopping 20 points in the paint, exposing the Kiwis as not having a genuine center with Sean Marks unable to recover from shoulder surgery and Pledger playing limited minutes.
Penney had 11 points for New Zealand in the first period, not just relying on his usual long-range shots to get his points but also driving to the basket and drawing fouls as he went 6-of-6 from the free-throw line.
NZ Tall Blacks 79 (Kirk Penney 37, Mika Vukona 19) Lithuania 92 (Linas Kleiza 27, Paulius Jankunas 15, Jonas Maciulis 14)
HT 50-34 (25-10)
Q3 72-61 (24-27)
FT 92-79 (18-18)
NZ v Lithuanian box score (html 140kb)