MANILA, Philippines – The surprise of the 2016 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament turned out to be New Zealand.
The relatively young Tall Blacks, whose average age is 25, put on a valiant stand in the 6-nation tilt and came painfully close to upsetting the favored Canada in the semifinals Saturday, July 9.
That they turned the semis into a ballgame and even led midway in the fourth period was something of a surprise for the team after losing starting big man Isaac Fotu to injury in the first half.
“We lost one of our most influential players early on when Isaac went down. For our guys to find a way to still compete with that Canadian team was quite astonishing really and that’s full credit to our guys,” said head coach Paul Henare after the 78-72 result that sent Canada to the finals.
“We weren’t good enough today but I know these guys can hold their heads high and the guys that will be around for a long time will learn from this experience.”
Henare said the 6-foot-8 Fotu, who at 22 years old has already played in the 2014 FIBA World Cup and the 2015 FIBA Oceania Championship, “felt a tweak or a pop in his calf muscles” in the first half. Fotu tried to return to the game but could no longer do so.
He finished with just 3 points on a trey, a rebound, and an assist in 9 minutes of play, and was limping as he exited the court after the game.
Losing Fotu meant shortening the big man rotation to just Mika Vokuna and Robert Loe so New Zealand was forced to go small for long stretches, including relying more on forward 6-foot-6 Thomas Abercrombie.
Fotu’s best performance came in a victory over the Philippines with 17 points on 3-of-4 shooting from downtown, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal. He had 8 points, 10 rebounds, and two assists versus France.
“I don’t know how we competed with them, we’re outsized, we’re outmatched but we still found a way and I thought our guys played a really well-balanced game and they were aggressively going down the line and moving the ball well,” said Henare, whose squad relied on the lethal guard combination of Webster brothers Tai and Corey, who produced 36 points between them.
Tai Webster, who currently plays for NCAA Division I team Nebraska Cornhuskers in the US, at one point also howled in pain from the bench as he appeared to hurt his wrist but returned to play right away.
“I’m really proud of the way we played tonight,” said Abercrombie, who came up with 16 points and 6 rebounds.
“We battled really hard, we gave ourselves a great chance to win this game. A couple little things in the end just cost us. But for the most part I think I’m really proud of the guys and how we fought and how we played.”
Big man and NBA champion Tristan Thompson as well as Canadian head coach Jay Triano gave credit and praised the Kiwis for their performance.
"I’d like to give New Zealand a lot of credit. They’re a well-coached team. Their coach had them prepared, they fought until the end," said Thompson, who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA. "But for us the guys dug deep in the fourth quarter, got stops and that’s what changed the game."
"I thought New Zealand played a tough game and they’ve been very good in this tournament and I give them a lot of credit," Triano chimed in.
Photo by Martin San Diego/Rappler
New Zealand’s character and resilience as a team shined brightest in the face of adversity against Canada. But the high level of play, the team’s tremendous discipline, and the strong potential and chemistry was evident since 3 days ago.
The Kiwis, tagged as a more manageable foe for Gilas Pilipinas in Group B, showed they were no pushover on their way to a convincing 89-80 victory over the home team. They also posed a serious threat to the Tony Parker-led France, losing by just 66-59 and having controlled that ballgame for the first 3 quarters.
Though losing the chance to qualify for the Olympics, New Zealand is walking away from the tournament with much to be proud of and plenty of helpful lessons learned.
“I just had a pretty tough conversation with that team in the locker room,” Henare said. “Those guys really worked their butts off not just tonight but for the last 4-5 weeks. Just wanted to tell them I extremely proud of them and the way they played.” – Rappler.com