HAMISH BIDWELL
This crop of Tall Ferns may not have done the previously unthinkable but assistant coach Shawn Dennis (below) says the maiden victory against the Australian Opals is not far off.
Dennis' baby-faced girls came within a whisker of a mammoth upset over the Opals at Pettigrew-Green Arena, only for mental fatigue to finally trip them up in the last of their three FIBA Oceania Championships in Te Awamutu yesterday.
Australia choked the life out of the New Zealand offence en route at a convincing 67-38 victory yesterday, but it was Saturday's near miss in Taradale that has left Dennis in a confident mood.
"I'm still pretty excited," said Dennis in reference to Saturday's 75-67 loss.
"The result here was incredible and my feeling is very good about where our girls are in terms of their development.
But knowing the way the Australians operate, Sunday's result was a little bit predictable and our girls still don't have that mental toughness and aren't used to backing up the way the Australians are.
"I think the lesson we learned was that we need to get in better shape physically, because the better shape you're in, the better equipped you are to deal with the mental fatigue."
Not that he feels the team let themselves down yesterday. It's more that the emotion of coming so close to creating history took a bit of the edge off all concerned.
"After Saturday, I think a couple of the veteran players were a bit deflated because they saw it as their first, and maybe last, opportunity to beat the Australians," Dennis said.
"The younger ones were more excited and, as a whole, the mood of the group was very high. But after expending so much energy the next day was always going to be a challenge and as coaches we did what we could to try and get them back up but I just don't think the players were used to that kind of intensity."
But as long as the right lessons are learned, by Dennis and head coach Mike McHugh as much as the players, then the future is incredibly bright.
"Oh, there's a massive upside with this team. Young Jess McCormack is only 15, Lisa Wallbutton is only 18, Angela Marino and Micaela Cocks are 19 and if we keep the right programmes in place, in five or six years time we'll be really competitive."
Marino, Wallbutton and McCormack were all outstanding in Saturday's loss, with Marino single-handedly clawing the Tall Ferns back to a two point deficit with 7:30 to go in the match. The irony of the final outcome, was that it was the Opals' two Maori girls that eventually swung the match Australia's way.
Jae Cross (nee Kingi) and Alicia Poto, whose family hails from Bridge Pa, had 18 and 14 points respectively as the Aussies snuck home. Sadly for Poto a serious knee injury in yesterday's match looks set to rule her out of March's Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.