Welcome to Brazil
The Tall Blacks’ last-gasp Olympic qualifying attempt got off to a rocky start when they stuttered to a 49-73 loss against a talented Brazil side at a build-up tournament in San Carlos today.
Less than two days after their two-day journey from Canberra, the under-strength NZ men’s outfit faced a home team bolstered by NBA centres Nene Hilario and Anderson Varejao, and were immediately reminded of the harsh realities of international basketball.
“I feel for the guys,” observed former Tall Black Paul Henare, now an assistant coach. “The travel schedule wasn’t an excuse for the performance tonight, but it was definitely a factor – the guys were feeling it a bit.”
They got off to a positive enough start, with veteran Casey Frank hitting from the arc for an early lead.
In this first competitive outing of the campaign, head coach Nenad Vucinic opted for 32-year-old “rookie” Hayden Allen to fill Kirk Penney’s vacant shooting guard spot and moved captain Mika Vukona into Tom Abercrombie’s small forward position, with Frank replacing Vukona at power forward.
But once the game found some momentum, it swung overwhelmingly to the home team, who quickly built a double-figure advantage to lead 19-9 after 10 minutes. They proved especially hard to stop around the basket, and established their dominance despite misfiring from long distance (0/8) and the free-throw line (3/8) through the first half.
Without Penney and Abercrombie – their two best outside threats in recent seasons – New Zealand looked like a team trying to figure out who would score. No one managed to find the basket more than once before halftime and, as a team, they shot just 25% from the field to trail 16-33 at the break.
“That’s something we’ve addressed as a coaching staff,” confirmed Henare. “We’ve lost Kirk and we’ve lost Tom, and that’s a huge chunk of scoring we have to make up.
“We’re still looking for that guy or a few guys to put the ball in the basket.”
Their cause wasn’t helped when Brazilian guard Marquinhos finally connected from afar, sparking an 8-2 run to start the third quarter.
The Tall Blacks found a brief response from the unlikeliest of sources – teenage debutant Tai Webster, who produced a six-point flurry late in the period. They still lagged 32-54 entering the final stretch – not helped by 17 turnovers – but the Kiwis had managed as many points in the previous 10 minutes as they had in the entire first half.
“Tai was fantastic tonight,” said Henare. “He showed a lot of poise and confidence for someone so young, and I’d expect his role in the team to steadily progress. He showed tonight what he’s capable of.”
Leon Henry, Allen and Lindsay Tait all provided treys in the final quarter, and after momentarily falling 30 points behind, New Zealand closed the game with a seven-point run to salvage some respectability.
Webster emerged as the side’s leading scorer with eight points, Frank had seven, while centre Alex Pledger (six points/seven rebounds) and Tait (five points/seven rebounds/four assists) were other significant contributors.
As a team, they converted only 37% from the field, turned the ball over 18 times – just once in the final period though – and probably conceded a few too many offensive boards (11) for their liking.
“After our pre-game meeting this afternoon, we handed out singlets to our four debutants,” said Henare. “That’s a third of the team that haven’t experienced anything like this before and there are a few others that haven’t had a big role in the past. Over half our team haven’t really played international basketball, so playing Brazil in Brazil brings a new kind of expectation and experience.”
Tomorrow, the Tall Blacks face Greece – 88-76 winners over Nigeria in the earlier game – at 10am NZ time. Ultimately, they’re preparing for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament at Caracas, Venezuela, where they must finish in the top three teams to secure one of the last spots available at London next month.
Brazil 73 (Marquinhos 14, Machado 10) New Zealand 49 (Tai Webster 8, Casey Frank 7, Everard Bartlett 6, Leon Henry 6, Alex Pledger 6, Lindsay Tait 5, Hayden Allen 5, Jarrod Kenny 2, Jeremiah Trueman 2, Rob Loe 2)
HT 33-16 (14-7)
Q3 54-32 (21-16)
Q4 73-49 (19-17)