Victory not enough for TBs
The Tall Blacks’ Olympic dream ended in Venezuela this morning, but not before a gutsy show of defiance that saw them defeat Angola 68-64.
And in the process, teenager Tai Webster confirmed the promise that may well see the national men’s team rise from the ashes of what has been a frustrating 2012 campaign.
Webster led all scorers with 21 points that included five three-pointers and provided the offensive spark that finally seemed capable of achieving their goal.
After losing heavily to Macedonia yesterday, New Zealand needed to beat their African rivals by 26 points to advance to the quarterfinals of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Caracas.
If they’d been slow out of the blocks against the European upstarts, the Kiwi remedied the situation in their second outing of the competition, running up seven points – including a three from Webster (17) – before their rivals got on the board.
“The guys came out of the Macdonia game gutted,” admitted captain Mika Vukona. “It was one of those games we really shouldn’t have lost – we just wanted to make amends and show we deserved to be at this tournament.”
Forward Rob Loe chimed in with another long-distance bucket later in the period as the lead grew to eight, but Angola got back in contention when two fouls from veteran Casey Frank – one an unsportsmanlike – gifted them six quick points.
New Zealand were again in foul trouble – captain Mika Vukona and Frank had two in the opening quarter and Angola shot 8/10 from the free-throw line to trail just 12-14 at the first break.
But Webster had found his range – he added two more treys soon after the resumption and a third midway through the period brought up a double-figure advantage. When Leon Henry also joined the party, the Tall Blacks seemed to have finally found some offensive flow.
The lead reached 18 points and stood at 40-26 by halftime, and defensively, the Kiwis had held their opponents to 6/27 from the field. Suddenly, the huge points differential didn’t look so insurmountable.
The dream was still alive.
But sustaining such dominance at this level isn’t easy and Angola scored the first six points out of the break to sneak within singlefigures again. They then scored eight more in a row, including treys to Carlos Morais and Armando Costa, to close within three.
As the adversaries entered the home stretch, New Zealand still clung to a 58-52 edge and stretched it a little further when Loe hit consecutive baskets, the first from the arc.
But, by now, they were starting to make too many errors – fouls, turnovers and conceded offensive rebounds – and the Angolans were pressing hard. When Eduardo Mingas hit a pair of freebies with 3m 28s on the clock, capping a six-point run, they were back within a shot of the lead.
“Basketball is one of those games with momentum shifts all the time,” said Vukona. “They made some shots down the stretch and it didn’t work out for us.”
But point guard Lindsay Tait stroked a three-pointer – his first points of the encounter – added another basket and snatched a crucial offensive board to keep the game safe. The result meant Group D finished in a three-way tie, but the Kiwis’ 22-point loss in their opener was never going to help them advance.
It was a grim defensive struggle – the Tall Blacks shot just 35% from the field, but restricted their opponents to 32% – where New Zealand’s 12/35 from afar proved a difference maker. Led by Mingas’ 17 points/10 rebounds, Angola used their athleticism to secure 20 offensive boards, but were probably happy enough to secure their path into the next stage.
Vukona and his men were obviously disappointed with how this campaign ended, but acknowledged the odds were stacked against them once starters Kirk Penney and Tom Abercrombie withdrew last month.
He defended the decision to send an understrength team to an event of this magnititude, and pointed at the development of Webster and Loe as ample justification.
“Tai really showed his worth out there,” he insisted. “He showed [coach Nenad Vucinic] he can always rely on him – his potential is limitless from what he’s shown us so far.”
FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament
New Zealand 68 (Webster 21, Henry 15, Loe 13) Angola 64 (Mingas 17, Cipriano 11)
HT 40-26 (26-14)
Q3 58-52 (18-26)
FT 68-64 (10-12)