Ferns bounced by Czechs
On the scoreboard, it was a convincing loss, but the Tall Ferns may have emerged with a small moral victory as they fell 51-70 to the Czech Republic in their opening game of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament at Ankara, Turkey.
In their last meeting at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, New Zealand had finished 31 points (59-90) shy of their highly regarded opponents, currently sitting 12 spots above them on world rankings (fourth) and boasting silver medals at the last world championships.
Since then, the Ferns programme has languished in the basketball wilderness, surviving on the goodwill of its Asian neighbours to keep ticking over. This first contact with the rest of the world in four years represents an encouraging return to the big stage.
Although Lisa Wallbutton surprisingly got control of the opening jumpball against taller opponent Petra Kulichova (1.98m), Czechs were immediately on top in the initial exchanges, beginning with an 18-2 run that threatened to squeeze the life out of their opponents.
The Ferns were executing well enough and creating plenty of opportunities – they just couldn’t convert them. Through the opening quarter – won 20-6 by Czech Republic – the Kiwis had actually attempted more shots, but were just 2/20 from the field.
“You’ve just got to make shots in international basketball and we weren’t making shots today, especially in that first quarter,” observed coach Kennedy Kereama. ”That hurt us.
“I wouldn’t credit the Czech defence for that – we had open looks, but missed three or four open shots in the paint. The one thing that kept the scoreboard rolling over for us was our ability to get to the foul line.
“We were fairly agressive offensively.”
They began to find some momentum in a second period highlighted by captain Natalie Taylor’s three-play that got them within 11 points. Generally, they were holding their taller rivals off the offensive boards and their scoring was assisted by faultless shooting (11/11) from the free-throw line.
But they couldn’t find an answer for forward Eva Viteckova, who already had 19 points (including three three-pointers) by halftime.
The Czechs were up 44-25 at the break and although they extended their margin to 24 points early, New Zealand hung around and eventually shared the third quarter 10-10.
American-born Casey Lockwood, on her first Tall Ferns campaign, had provided a useful spark off the bench and as the, fourth period wore on, coach Kennedy Kereama began to introduce more of his reserves, perhaps sensing his side had made a point and it was better to save his firepower for another day.
The Kiwis had the satisfaction of also sharing the final quarter (16-16) and second half with their more illustrious opponents – young Erin Rooney missed two free throws in the dying seconds that would’ve given them some bragging rights.
Viteckova led all scorers, but added just three points after the midway point, while Kulichova secured her double double – she finished with 13 points/13 rebounds – soon after halftime.
“They had 34 points in the paint, but we’re a small team,” said Kereama. “You can’t disguise that when you line up for the national anthems and you’re, on average, eight centimetres smaller than the other team.
“If you look down the stat line, Kulichova and Burgrova were two girls that completely dominated us at the last Olympics, but we held them to low double figures.
“They scored 90 points against us last time so, defensively, this was a much better effort for us.”
Forward Jillian Harmon was the best of the Ferns with nine points and seven rebounds, while as a team, they had held their own in key statistical areas. While they committed more turnovers (13-10), NZ had actually grabbed more offensive rebounds, albeit missing 15 more shots.
In the final analysis, the Kiwis simply hadn’t shot well enough (25% FG, 0/9 3pt) to stay in contention. Still, they’ll be encouraged heading into their must-win encounter with 12th-ranked Argentina tomorrow.
“Argentina are a pretty tough team,” said Kereama. “They’re physical, they go after it and play with a lot of emotion, but I definitely think we’re good enough to beat them.”
That game tips off at 1.45am NZ time.
FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament
Czech Republic 70 (Eve Viteckova 22, Petra Kulichova 13, Ilona Burgrova 12, Katerina Elhotova 10) New Zealand 51 (Jillian Harmon 9, Natalie Taylor 7, Lisa Wallbutton 7, Casey Lockwood 6, Micaela Cocks 4, Karlene Kingi 4, Charmian Purcell 4, Noni Wharemate 4, Antonia Edmondson 4, Kate McMeeken-Ruscoe 2)
HT 44-25 (24-19)
Q3 54-35 (10-10)
FT 70-51 (16-16)