Team Tamaki-Central were crowned the Burger King 3x3 Quest Tour champions this weekend after winning the final of the World Tour Qualifier at The Cloud Event Centre in Auckland.
Through this victory, Tamaki-Central teammates Rory Fannon, Sherif Hassan, Anthony Jones, and Connor Woodbridge have claimed their right to compete in the FIBA 3x3 World Masters in Utsunomiya, Japan in July.
The Grand Final was highly anticipated by local basketball fans with defending champions Auckland having 3x3 heavyweights Karl Noyer and James McLeod lining up. Both Noyer and McLeod have represented New Zealand at the past two FIBA 3x3 World Masters and their experience had Auckland as favourites, yet Tamaki-Central paid no respect to history or their own underdog status.
The game was a back and forth slugfest. The lead was traded throughout right up until the final anxious moments where both teams fired a rally of missed free throws that would have otherwise won the game. Eventually it was an amazing clutch two-point basket by Connor Woodbridge that sealed the deal for the Tamaki team to claim the 2017 title, winning a nail biting final 21-19.
Tamaki-Centrals captain Rory Fannon was a force in the paint, but said he was battling fatigue and put the game winning moments down to their new recruit, young Connor Woodbridge, who managed to make the final basket to reach 21 before their experienced opponents.
"Coming down to the last basket we were all exhausted. My back was hurting, so I'm just so glad we could pull it together. Connor was the real hero of the game and was amazing for us down the stretch, he deserves all the praise."
Woodbridge is the youngest player of the Tamaki-Central squad and has enjoyed success as a Kiwi in the High School system in the United States, recently graduating from Floridas IMG academy. He is back in New Zealand with an eye on returning to the U.S. to play Division 1 College Basketball. He said it was great to step into the 3x3 environment while back home.
"It was great to be part of an excellent group of players that welcomed me in straight away. It was a simple transition from the full game as it's a lot easier to exploit matchups in 3x3. I'm happy at how our team played, and glad to get my teammates involved early and have a chance to win it at the end."
Overall the event was a gruelling day of street basketball for the 12 teams that had qualified, first needing to survive a taxing five-game round robin, before the semi-finalists were found.
Tamaki-Central battled with an unsteady 18-17 loss to a gutsy Hamilton team early in the day. They needed to find their feet fast and managed to rally to pull together a string of victories in their remaining round robin games to find their way to the semi-finals.
The semis provided a wide array of talent with Canterbury and Hamilton making up the minor placings. Tamaki-Central exploited the size mismatches of a smaller Canterbury to a 16 - 8 win in the first semi-final. On the other side of the brackets, Auckland Central took on a young Hamilton squad that played shot for shot up until the final moments, but again it appeared to be the Auckland teams collective experience that let them to the final with a 15-13 win.
For 3x3 National Coach Anthony Corban it was a great time to identify future talent for the upcoming 3x3 international schedule, which includes the FIBA 3x3 World Cup taking place in Nantes, France and The U18 3x3 World Cup in Chengdu, China.
"The 3x3 game is all about finding balance in a squad and having the ability to read the play and not perform in a robotic system. Ideally we are looking for players who can react to situations and are comfortable with not being in a system, but ultimately all players need to be able to shoot the ball and be versatile in all parts of the game."
Basketball New Zealands 3x3 Manager, David Huxford, has seen the growth of the 3x3 game in New Zealand, having run the Burger King 3x3 Quest Tour for the last four years. He says with the full weight of FIBA behind the 3x3 format and international participation sky-rocketing, the street version of basketball has a strong chance of being added to the 2020 Olympic Games.
"An announcement is expected in June as to whether or not 3x3 will be included by the IOC in future Olympics. If yes, then the first Olympics will be the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo Japan. Japan is the only country that currently has a professional 3x3 league."
Fannons Squad will travel to Utsunomiya, Japan to represent Tamaki-Central in the World Tour Masters on 29-30 July 2017. The FIBA World Tour culminates in the World Tour Finals in the Philippines at a date to be announced. If the team picks up the win in Japan, they will stamp their ticket into the World Masters Final.
The Burger King 3x3 Quest Tour World Tour Qualifer was livestreamed and the replay can be viewed here, with the final beginning around 4:59.