Following games in China and Latvia the third stage of the Tall Ferns build up towards the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in France began in Minsk on Thursday.
Despite a monster double double from Jillian Harmon the Tall Ferns went down 78-74 to hosts Belarus, ranked 10th in the world, in the first game of the Four Nations Tournament. The Italian based power forward led all scorers with 32 points (11 from 22 shooting plus 10 from 12 free throws). In addition she garnered 15 rebounds, dished 4 assists and snared a pair of steals.
The Ferns rested small forward Kalani Purcell and started Chevannah Paalvast in her place but fell behind 20-15 in the first period.
Belarus, like the Tall Ferns, are heading to Nantes for the Olympic Qualifiers later in the month and in the second period built a 12 points lead 37-25 although that was trimmed by half time to 40-34.
The Kiwis enjoyed a terrific third quarter going on a 10-0 scoring run to move 52-51 ahead before the home team edged back into the lead 58-55 at the last break.
Micaela Cocks (10pts), Toni Edmondson (6pts), Josie Stockill (6pts) and Paalvast (8pts) all gave Harmon scoring support but trailing by just two points (67-65) with 5 minutes to play missed some makeable shots down the stretch to fall agonisingly short of a morale boosting win.
"It was truly a game of runs and we made some and so did they. We had some tremendous patches of play and played some of our best team basketball. We were running the floor well in transition which is great because we challenged the team on that," said Tall Ferns coach Kennedy Kereama.
"The coaching team used this game to test a number of our bench players to see who will round out our team for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament," he added.
Despite the loss there was plenty to like about the Tall Ferns performance. A top ten team in the world was pushed all the way (NZ ranked 22nd).
Without Purcell the Ferns won the rebounding battle 45-34 and challenged to attack the basket more often earned 32 visits to the free throw line, converting 26 efforts at 82%.
A huge positive was that Cantabrian point guard Erin Rooney had her first competitive outing since injuring her knee playing for Calais in the French League back in February. Rooney logged 18 minutes scoring 5 points (5/5FT) and adding 5 rebounds. Team management will be hoping one of their most experienced players will have come through her first competitive game in almost four months unscathed.