The Tall Blacks achieved their first goal on the Road to Rio with a gutsy and skillful 89-80 win over a determined Philippines team in front of a partisan home crowd in Manila tonight, in the process booking a place in the semi-finals of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
The home side were always going to be a tough proposition as they played for their lives in the tournament, having already gone down against France the night before and with the vocal support of 16,000 packing the Mall of Asia Arena, they gave almost as good as they got - but the Tall Blacks showed that extra bit of class and focus at the key moments.
Coach Henare had no doubt he had witnessed the best performance from his side on tour, and it came at just the right moment.
"I am proud of the boys tonight, that was clearly our best performance on tour and it is thanks to the hard work of the players but also the support staff, the coaches for their scouts, the medical team for the work they have done to have this group ready to play - and tonight it all came together in the game we have been targeting for months now. And we needed that performance against a very good team. I liked the balance of how we attacked them with Tai and Corey a hell of a back court but with Tom and Ike making huge baskets as well, it was the most balanced performance on tour for sure."
New Zealand knew they were up against it when the PA system continued to blast music over the haka, but it is things like that that fire up the team in the black singlet, and they took control of the game in the opening minutes and but for one moment in the fourth quarter when the Philippines closed to within a basket, they never let go.
Tai Webster had a career night in black, posting 25 points, 11 rebounds and 3 assists while brother Corey Webster was back to near his best on limited preparation due to a calf strain, draining 23 points on 7 of 14 shooting.
Defensively everyone stepped up, no one more so than Shea Ili off the bench as the point guard hounded the Philippines guards at every step while Mika Vukona led as he always does, from the front with desperate plays, unlikely rebounds and inspirational leadership. The veteran captain was delighted with the effort of his team.
"They are young in age but they are nearly vets, to see them come out and show that tonight, it is a good start, phase one done. That was a great effort from the boys, they showed the composure that Pauli said would be key during the game, Tai, Corey Tommy, Ike - they all did a great job in stepping up at the right time throughout the game. It was a great effort by everyone though, we stuck to the scouting report that the coaches had laid out, it was always going to be tough against Blatche and I think everyone did a great job on that and the guards did a great job in not allowing the Philippines players to get off."
The 21-17 lead at first quarter break extended to 38-31 at halftime, and with Fotu hitting two big triples and the Tall Blacks locking down on defence, that lead ballooned to 12 early in the third quarter and the game looked all but over. But the Philippines are no easy beats, as they showed in pushing world number 5 France to the wire the night before, and they made a run to close to within one basket midway through the final quarter.
The response from the Tall Blacks from that point was a delight, with Abercrombie, Fotu and the Webster brothers all making huge plays while Ili and Vukona were the leading lights in the defensive effort, ably supported by an ensemble cast with Rob Loe, BJ Anthony, Everard Bartlett all doing their bit from the bench in a great team effort as the Tall Blacks took control of the game and were never threatened in the closing stages.
The noise in the stadium was at times deafening, with each home basket roared home and every defensive stop cheered loudly. From the booing of the Tall Blacks as they entered the stadium, to the noise over the haka and the deafening home support, it was a great night for basketball and one that Vukona loved being a part of.
"Unbelievable, that is the kind of stuff you want as a player, on someone elses home court and when they go on a run the crowd goes nuts. That fuels your fire and the guys loved it, it was great to see everyone step up - even the guys who didnt play tonight did a great job of keeping everyone focused."
New Zealand now play France tomorrow night in a match to decide seeding through to the semifinals, with both teams assured of a place in the final four.
Tall Blacks 89
T Webster 25/11, C Webster 23, I Fotu 17/5, T Abercrombie 13/7
Blatche 30, William 13, Fajardo 11, Chan 11
- This story has been automatically published using a media release from Basketball New Zealand