The Tall Blacks have enhanced their reputation as a threat to the world's best, despite a 66-59 defeat to France in their Olympic qualifiying tournament this morning.
A mammoth effort saw the Tall Blacks lead throughout the game, holding a double-digit advantage to start the final quarter before the class of the French eventually prevailed to stomp out what would have been a stunning victory.
As a result, the Tall Blacks set their sights to a semifinal clash with Canada on Saturday night, with their performances to date making them a real threat to the NBA-laden Canucks.
For 30 minutes today, they were a superior side to the fifth-ranked French, who possessed the NBA class of Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Joffrey Lauvergne. Outsized and comparatively inexperienced, Paul Henare's men put in the type of effort worthy of an Olympic final; effort which has become synonymous with the black singlet.
Their defensive rotations were frantic, using many of the same principles which proved successful against the Philippines. Double teams down low led to frenzied closeouts onto French shooters, causing unwanted passes and awkward dribble drives as France struggled to make offensive headway.
In fact, offence seemed optional in parts of a first half which only fans of the respective teams could enjoy. A five minute span went by in the second quarter with neither team scoring, before New Zealand found some fortune from beyond the arc to carve out a handy lead.
That buffer turned into a 31-23 halftime advantage, as the French struggle to create clean looks continued. When they would work their way into an open three, the shots wouldn't drop, missing their first 14 attempts from deep.
To intensify their woes, the Tall Blacks were defying their height disadvantage with outstanding work on the boards. Isaac Fotu (10 rebounds) and Mika Vukona (12 boards) combined for 14 offensive rebounds, smartly tipping out loose balls to perimeter shooters for open second-chance looks.
As those looks fell, so did the French chances, with the lead stretching to 50-38 early in the final period. As New Zealand thoughts contemplated an upset for the history books, France finally flew into gear.
After frankly seeming disinterested in some of the early stages, a spark from the bench ignited a ferocious 22-2 run to turn the game on its head. Positive regression tilted their way as well, as their competent shooters finally began to hit the triples which were previously wayward.
Three bombs fell in quick succession, and they began to ratchet up their defensive pressure, forcing shot clock violations and hasty shot attempts as their NBA-calibre length finally began to impose itself on the contest.
Every drop of their international experience was required, and the Tall Blacks started to show the toll of two games in two days, running out of gas after their full-hearted defensive effort.
France claimed the victory, but the tournament has been sent a message of intent - the Tall Blacks will not be swept aside.
France 66 (Gelebale 11, Diaw 10, Tillie 10)
Tall Blacks 59 (C. Webster 21 (7/22 FG, 5/15 3PT), T.Webster 9/8/2, Fotu 8/10)
What this means for Rio: Four teams remain in the fight for the one spot at the Rio Olympics. France will take on Turkey, while the Tall Blacks face Canada. While the Tall Blacks will be underdogs against Canada and in a theoretical final, they have shown that every game is winnable from here on out.