Basketball: Tall Blacks book semifinal spot at Olympic qualifiers

By Niall Anderson

Tai Webster lays it in against the Philippines. Photo / Getty
Tai Webster lays it in against the Philippines. Photo / Getty

The Olympic dream is a step closer for the Tall Blacks after a hard-fought 89-80 victory over the Philippines in Manila this morning.

Led by standout performances from the Webster brothers, the Tall Blacks clinched a berth in the semifinals, and bundled the host nation out of the tournament in the process.

While a group stage clash against the powerhouse French side awaits tomorrow morning, the victory sees the Tall Blacks advance within two knockout games of a trip to Brazil next month.

All the traditional elements of Tall Blacks basketball were present in the win, with a dash of new blood sprinkled in to provide a deadly mix which proved too much for the Philippines.

Offensively, dribble handoffs and whirring motion sets created potent side-to-side movement, and Mika Vukona's defensive hustle combined with Tom Abercrombie's springy length to provide moments seen regularly by New Zealand basketball fans over the years.

While those contributing factors have been consistently present, they were perfectly compleneted by the wave of young talent flowing through New Zealand basketball.

Listen: Paul Henare on the Tall Blacks' victory

Point guard Tai Webster had possibly the finest game of his career, gliding by defenders with electric speed on his way to 26 points, while hauling down 11 rebounds and dishing three dimes.

Faced with an early deficit, the Philippines switched to a zone to combat his dribble penetration, resulting in brother Corey stepping up. The elder Webster swished two second quarter threes as part of his 23 point haul, and guided the Tall Blacks to a 38-31 halftime advantage.

Up front, Isaac Fotu battled manfully on the glass as part of a team rebounding effort which combatted the Filipino bigs, before bouncing back from moments of hesistancy to hit three vital triples in a ruthlessly efficient pick-and-pop combination with the Webster brothers.

Defensively, the Tall Blacks began by swarming with ruthless effiency. A fast start was sparked by doubling the Philippines' main threat, former NBA big man Andray Blatche. Blatche's kickouts led to frantic defensive effort and rotations from the visitors- scrambling, switching and showing nimble footwork effective enough to contest the eventual shots from the perimiter.

Shea Ili - named the most valuable Kiwi guard in the New Zealand NBL - was at the heart of everything good defensively in his 17 minute stint on the court, forcing the hosts to veer towards isolation basketball in crunch time.

That one-on-one style nearly paid dividends for the side coached by former Tall Blacks tactician Tab Baldwin. After a poor first half, the mercurial Blatche started to demand the ball further out, and went to work, making some tough shots as he brought a double-digit deficit back within two points.

As several Tall Blacks began cramping up, the Philippines threw their knockout punches, with Blatche barrelling into the lane at will, and his teammates finding some rare space for open looks.

However, the Tall Blacks battled through it, and came out the other side with a defendable lead as the home crowd dropped decibels. Blatche refused to go away, but Abercrombie was matching him all the way, stepping up with some tough fourth quarter shots as the Tall Blacks ground their way to their richly deserved victory.

What this means for Rio: The Tall Blacks could have been hanging by a thread with a loss, but instead they are two knockout games away from a trip to Brazil. A likely semifinal against Canada awaits. The Canadians also possess NBA quality in their roster, but can be less than convincing at times, and could be toppled with a bit of fortune. Basketball behemoths France still stand in their way with oodles of NBA talent, and the Tall Blacks will get a test of their competitiveness tomorrow morning in their second and final group game.

- NZ Herald

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