Basketball: Tall Blacks progress in thriller

By Brenton Vannisselroy in Bilbao

Isaac Fotu of New Zealand basketball team. Photo / Basketball NZ.
Isaac Fotu of New Zealand basketball team. Photo / Basketball NZ.

Tall Blacks 67
Finland 65

The Tall Blacks have again overcome the odds to make the last 16 at the Basketball World Cup.

New Zealand's held on to beat Finland 67-65 in a heart-stopping final pool game in Bilbao, Spain to advance from Group C along with the USA, the Dominican Republic and Turkey.

It completes a remarkable turnaround for the Tall Blacks, who looked down and out after losing their opening three group games. Now they're through to face Lithuania in the quarter-finals.

New Zealand coach Nenad Vucinic says they believe they're one of top 16 nations in the world.

"I think we deserve to be through and I think the opposition [in the round of 16] will take us very seriously," Vucinic said.

"It would have been very hard to not qualify for the second round, for me personally," he said.

"Because I think we've worked hard enough over the last four years to develop a good team and we have played very good basketball, even in this tournament."

In typical Tall Blacks fashion, they did it the hard way. After leading by as many as 20 points in the third quarter, they needed to produce two pivotal plays down the stretch to hold on for the win. Forward Mika Vukona pulled down a big rebound, his 12th of the game, when New Zealand led by just one point with less than 10 seconds remaining, and then third string point guard Jarrod Kenny denied Finland's Petteri Koponen a potentially game-tying basket.

Kenny was the last man cut from the 2010 world championship squad and Vucinic hailed his perseverance.

"He missed out, [but] he worked really hard to make the team this year. He didn't play much in the first games [and] in the pre-season games, but any time he was called up...he was ready," Vucinic said.

"He was big for us, not only at the end, [but] also when we lost a bit of our way in the first half."

University of Hawaii student Isaac Fotu led the Tall Blacks with 18 points and eight rebounds, following up from his double-double against Ukraine.

"We identified Isaac back in 2011 as a potential star of the Tall Blacks team...and I'm glad we weren't wrong," Vucinic said. "He was crucial for us, he got our offence going."

Fotu, 20, was happy to have contributed in a pivotal game.

"I'm always ready on the bench. If coach gives me two minutes or 20 minutes I just go out there and try and bring energy to the team," Fotu said.

"I think this is good experience for me personally playing against top teams in the world and I think this will help me with my personal development."

Called into action early, Fotu scored eight points in the first quarter to give New Zealand an 18-12 lead at the first interval. Back-up guard Lindsay Tait also provided a spark off the bench, scoring six points in the second quarter and dishing five assists to allow the Tall Blacks to go up by 14 midway through the period. Another Fotu basket gave New Zealand a 44-32 advantage at the half.

The Tall Blacks' offence was running effortlessly, with the team shooting at 55% from the field and only committing three turnovers through two quarters.

Veteran shooting guard Kirk Penney finally scored his first points at the start of the second half and it looked like New Zealand would run away with the game. A Penney lay-up gave the Tall Blacks a 53-33 advantage three minutes into the third quarter, but from there Finland, inspired by more than 8000 fans, outscored New Zealand 32-14.

Finland scored the final six points of the third period to cut the deficit to 57-45 and then scored three straight field goals to start the fourth quarter to make it a six point ball game. Finland would close to within a point before Vukona and Kenny came up with their key plays.

Kirk Penney was unapologetic about the scrappy second-half performance.

"It doesn't matter. It's like a rugby game, it can be free-flowing [and] look nice or it can be 6-0 and you don't really care," Penney said.

"It was trudging through the mud a little bit, but we got there."

Finland coach Henrik Dettman was devastated to have missed out on a place in the last 16, but has congratulated New Zealand for moving on.

"They have a nice style of playing basketball, they play together, they use everything they have [and] they play with heart, Dettman said.

"I thought my team did the same and basketball is a game with small differences. Today we had opportunities to win this game unfortunately we didn't have the experience."

New Zealand finished fourth in their group, while Lithuania won Group D after toppling previously unbeaten Slovenia 67-64 Slovenia.

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