Tall Blacks push France to the limit in Olympic qualifier

By Basketball New Zealand

The Tall Blacks were left ruing multiple missed opportunities that led to possibly the biggest miss of the night - the chance to topple world number five France in a fully-fledged FIBA tournament, going down in pool play 66-59 in a tight defensive arm wrestle at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Manila.

Signs were not good when the stadium blasted the national anthem of Canada during the pre-game formalities, this after the haka was drowned out the night before by music through the same PA system.

With the right anthem eventually found and the haka allowed to play out without musical accompaniment, the match got underway and the Kiwis looked on course for the upset of the tournament for the majority of the game, leading by as many as 12 over a star studded French outfit that were being out-hustled and at times out-muscled by the much smaller New Zealand rotation. But France flexed their own muscle in the final quarter, winning that 28-11 to quell the gallant New Zealand effort and progress to the semifinals as top seeds from the pool.

Head Coach Paul Henare was a mix of disappointment and pride post game.

"That was one we let slip, looking at the stats, we shot the ball at 30% from the floor and 23% from the two and we led the world number five for most of the game, I am still struggling to believe that with those numbers.

That though was a testament to our toughness on defence and our ability to match it with France in most areas. But tonight was one of those nights when it just seemed the shots werent going in the hole and credit France, they stepped up the intensity in the final quarter and we did not have an answer."

Corey Webster ended with a game high 21 points, shooting 5 of 15 from deep with that number made worse as he looked to chase the scoreboard late in the game. The New Zealand shooting guard was disappointed at the result, but not at all despondent looking ahead to the semifinals.

"We competed well with one of the best teams in the world and the only reason we lost was our own mistakes, they didnt come out and play better and beat us, it was our own mistakes and not concentrating at the right time, that hurts when the game is in your hands and it ends up like that. We have a lot of work to do but we know we can compete with the top teams, we will take that positive from it.

"We will work out game plans and move forward from here, but we competed with the favourites here and led for virtually the whole game, those are positives we will take. They turned the pressure up a little in the fourth and we werent composed, didnt look after the ball and werent on the same page, but those are all things we can control, we will be ready next time we face them."

The Tall Blacks (playing in all white) came out of the blocks slowly, trailing 10-5 midway through the first quarter, but with some stern words from Coach Henare and a turning up of the defensive pressure, the underdogs shut down the much vaunted French offence to lead 14-13 at the end of the first ten minutes.

That increasingly sound defensive structure incredibly shut the French down even further in the second, allowing the Tony Parker led side to score just ten points, in the process edging out to a 31-23 lead. But while the stops were coming at one end, the buckets were not filling up at the other, with New Zealand shooting from the two at just 23% on the night. They were more successful from long range at 41%, but it was in the paint that the Kiwis were hurting their own chances, too often unable to finish at the rim.

The effort areas were there, with the New Zealanders again able to out-rebound a much larger opponent (47-36), with captain Mika Vukona (12) and Isaac Fotu (10) leading the way, the pair pulling down an incredible 14 offensive boards between them.

In the end though the run from the NBA laden French side in the final quarter proved unstoppable, with a 22-2 surge ending hopes of an upset for the Tall Blacks, relegating them to second in the pool and a semifinal with Canada on Saturday evening (10:30pm NZT).

What hasnt changed though is the formula for the New Zealanders to qualify for Rio, win two sudden death games against higher ranked opponents, and they are on the plane for the 2016 Olympic Games. And despite the result, the nature of the game and the traditional fight in the New Zealand side give hope that Rio is indeed an attainable goal.

Tall Blacks 59

C Webster 21, T Webster 9/8, I Fotu 8/10

France 66

Gelabale 11, Diaw 10, Tillie 10

H/T 31-23 NZL

- This story has been automatically published using a media release from Basketball New Zealand

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