Tall Blacks 71
The Tall Blacks have been outclassed, but not embarrassed by the USA in their Basketball World Cup group game in Bilbao, Spain.
The reigning world and Olympic champions have eased to a 98-71 win. But it was nowhere as one-sided as the Americans' opening win over Finland. New Zealand gave a good account of themselves against their vastly more talented opponents and they even won the third quarter.
The result compares favourably to the Tall Blacks' previous two losses against the USA; a 110-62 defeat at the 2002 world championships and a 102-56 loss at the 2000 Olympics.
The young Tall Blacks in particular relished the chance to test themselves against NBA players.
"It was a great experience, just to go out there and go at them really [and] just show them what we're made of," teenage guard Tai Webster said.
"[We're] just a little country from the bottom of the world and we had nothing to lose.
"I thought we did a good job fighting to the end and we didn't just lay [sic] down and [let them] stomp all over us, Webster said. "We could have...let them do all their alley-oops and all that stuff but I thought we did a good job of staying with it, you know, doing our best."
The Americans showed their respect for New Zealand, lining up to front the Tall Blacks' haka on court, in contrast to Turkey and the Dominican Republic before them.
USA coach Mike Krzyzewski says he spoke to Tall Blacks guard Kirk Penney before the haka to find out the correct protocol.
"They should send out a sheet to let people know that," Krzyzewski said. "And so I said we do respect that and we were actually going to shake hands with them after it because we knew that was a really neat thing to do."
The USA was led by its two starting big men. Anthony Davis, of the New Orleans Pelicans, top scored with 21 points, while Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried scored 15 points and pulled down 11 rebounds.
BJ Anthony was the Tall Blacks' surprise leading scorer with 11 points off the bench, with all but one of the New Zealand players getting on the scoreboard.
"I talked to my Dad before the game and he said that I haven't been putting up enough shots. I really took that on board and I just tried to get after it a bit more," Anthony said.
Anthony says once they got on court, their thoughts were just on playing another game.
"Everything before that, all the hype about USA - I mean, you look on your Facebook page and you've got USA team stuff going down. It's kind of surreal. But once you get on court, it's just hoops," he said. "If you let that get to you, that's when you're screwed."
New Zealand scored from its second possession, with Kirk Penney knocking down a baseline jumper after just 58 seconds to answer an opening Stephen Curry three pointer, but that was as close as the Tall Blacks would get.
There were signs of nervousness within the New Zealand squad to start the game, with the Webster brothers both shooting air balls in the first quarter. But the Tall Blacks provided their fair share of early highlights too. Tai Webster blocked an attempted lay-up from the Cleveland Cavaliers' NBA All-Star guard, Kyrie Irving, veteran forward Corey Frank produced a slam dunk and Anthony sunk a buzzer-beater to cut the USA's lead to 27-20 at quarter time.
Tall Blacks coach Nenad Vucinic was true to his word, rotating his players more than he had in the previous group games. Jarrod Kenny saw his first court time of the tournament early in the second quarter and he provided two assists for Everard Bartlett three-pointers.
Bartlett's spark off the bench momentarily made it a nine-point ball game before the Americans took over, outscoring New Zealand 22-9 to close out the period and take a 57-35 halftime lead.
The USA carried that momentum into the third quarter, with Houston Rockets All-Star James Harden throwing down a dunk after showing his range from beyond the arc. Faried then followed up with a couple of highlight reel plays to extend the Americans' lead to 30 points. But The Tall Blacks then went on a tear, scoring seven of the next nine field goals to win the third quarter 19-18 and trim the USA advantage to 75-54 at the final break.
The Americans threaten to extend the margin well beyond 30 points in the final quarter but a couple of late baskets from Anthony ensured the Tall Blacks' avoided embarrassment.
The Tall Blacks will face Ukraine in their penultimate group game tomorrow morning. Ukraine's recorded one of its finest wins in international basketball, upsetting Turkey 64-58.
But American-born guard Eugene Jeter says celebrations will be brief.
"We've got to prepare for New Zealand to really guarantee our chance of going to [the last 16 in] Barcelona," Jeter said. "We're going to enjoy the win today, but tomorrow's going to be harder."