Guard Micaela Cocks scored 16 points and the Tall Ferns quickly put more than 50 hours' travel behind them to challenge China before falling 73-79 in the opening game of their tour.
The national women's basketball team left New Zealand late Tuesday night and finally arrived at Suzhou City late Thursday, less than 24 hours before game time.
Despite the misadventures, caused by weather delays, they proved more than competitive with the world's seventh-ranked team, nine spots higher than the Kiwis.
"You wouldn't have thought we had just travelled for the last two days," coach Kennedy Kereama said. "The girls executed their offensive and defensive sets for 80 per cent of the game. We forced China to shoot a lot of contested shots in the first half and played extremely well against their taller interior players."
The Ferns, who had beaten China in their last meeting 12 months ago, wanted to stamp their authority by forcing their rivals into taking the first timeout of the contest - they achieved that within four minutes of tipoff.
"We had a very balanced interior/perimeter game for the most part and had a great spread of scorers," Kereama said. "Our ability to generate
easy scores off stops at the defensive end and push the ball in transition caused China some real problems."
Ahead by just two points at halftime, the Chinese returned from the break to gain some ascendancy in the paint and open up a winning comfort zone. The Ferns conceded 10 offensive rebounds through the game and these proved particularly decisive in that third quarter.
"They also enjoyed 29 trips to the foul line to our 18," Kereama observed. "It would be fair to say they had some help and that's to be expected. But we also allowed too many second-chance opportunities and we need to do a much better job of this next game."
Despite the result, positives probably outweighed negatives. New Zealand turned the ball over just eight times (China 11) and finished strongly despite their arduous travel itinerary.
Their opponents also came into this encounter far better prepared, having already played a series of games in the United States and Canada last month.
Forward Toni Edmondson had 13 points, Jillian Harmon 12 and Lisa Wallbutton narrowly missed a double double with nine points and 10 rebounds.
"I think you never come out of a game happy to lose, but we can take a lot out of this one," said Kereama. "It certainly gives me and the team confidence to know that after only five days together, we can come out and finish within six points of such a highly-ranked side."
Tonight, the Ferns face an Emerging Opals team, consisting of players outside the Australian Olympic squad.
Tall Ferns 73 (Micaela Cocks 16, Toni Edmondson 13, Jillian Harmon 12)