The Tall Blacks made it three from three in the most emphatic fashion at the SJEC 2016 International Basketball Challenge with a comprehensive 98-74 win over the host nation China tonight, booking their place in the semifinals in the process.
From the moment Tai Webster scored the opening five points of the game the result never looked in doubt, with the hungrier, faster and classier New Zealand side dominating all aspects of the game, in the process silencing the home crowd and essentially ending Chinas hopes of progressing from pool play.
The only negative on a very positive night, was the sight of Mika Vukona being elbowed in the head and being forced to the bench with an eye injury, ending his participation. Tall Blacks medical staff will monitor and assess the injury over the next 24 hours but it is hoped there is no serious damage for the teams leader and talisman.
Head Coach Paul Henare is pleased with the progress his side is making, all with a view to the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in July.
"I was impressed with the contribution from everybody, we got into early foul trouble with our bigs but everyone stepped in and contributed really well which was pleasing to see because you never know what is going to happen in the future and in important games you need these guys to have these experiences to fall back on, when called upon so to see that tonight was very pleasing.
"To hold them to 22 points in the first half was outstanding, we were locked into our rules and we are starting to gel and work together at the defensive end and we have to, if we are going to be successful we have to be solid defensively so to lay that foundation down in the first half was really pleasing."
Henare was understandably concerned about the injury to Vukona and the manner in which it was inflicted, with a leading elbow being driven into his face on a Chinese offensive drive, with the referees somehow still calling the foul on the New Zealand captain as he fell to the ground.
"Mika caught an elbow right in the eye and it has swollen up a bit, we are a bit concerned about concussion but he seems to have pulled through okay, it is good timing to have a rest day tomorrow so we can rest him up. He played the least amount of minutes tonight, BJ, Rob and big Mike Karena coming off the bench were outstanding."
Henare is never one to get ahead of himself and will be making sure his team is well grounded going into the semifinals of a tournament that is after all, just a stepping stone.
"One of our goals was to win the thing, but you have to get to the knockout rounds and coming in to this game that was still unknown. To be able to do that is great, but in the greater scheme of things it does not count for much towards our overall goal of Rio but it is about creating those expectations of winning when we step on the floor."
The minutes were well and truly shared around, with the lead 50-22 at the halftime break Henare had the luxury of running his bench, giving valuable time to the entire roster, with just Finn Delany and the ill Derone Raukawa sitting this game out.
Shea Ili and Mike Karena were the only two players to go beyond the 20 minute mark and both profited from their time on the floor, Ili posting 9 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists in an all energy display while Karena finished with a game high 18 points and 4 boards on a perfect 9 of 9 shooting night, including some spectacular dunks in the final quarter.
Corey Webster had 16, Tai Webster 13 while Isaac Fotu just missed a second consecutive double/double with 10 points and 9 rebounds in 16 minutes of court time. The New Zealanders shot the two at 55% and the three at 36% and smashed the boards to the tune of 42-23.
Henare and his assistant coaches Pero Cameron and Ross McMains will tomorrow (Friday) name the 12 players to move on to Europe to finalize preparations for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Manila from July 5, with two players returning home to New Zealand but remaining on standby in the event of injury.
Tall Blacks 98
Karena 18, C Webster 16, T Webster 13, Fotu 10, Abercrombie 9, Ili 9