The opening game of the two tests series between the New Zealand Junior Tall Ferns (JTFs) and China Under 19, played in front of a vociferous young crowd at Cowles Stadium Christchurch this afternoon, was eventually won 72-64 by China.
New Zealand made a good start as Charlisse Leger-Walker, Tiarna Clarke and Charlotte Whittaker made early baskets to forge a 7-2 lead.
Stung into action, China tied the scores at 15 points apiece, then dominated the back end of the quarter by capitalising on New Zealand turnovers to lead 27-22. Leger-Walker led the JTF's scoring effort with 8 points.
Zara Jillings made the opening basket of the second period followed by Akiene Reed as New Zealand kept the China offence in check. Alyssa Hirawani's drive took the Kiwi's to within a point, 30-29 before 205cm Xu Han was reintroduced to keep the JTF's front court busy.
Leger-Walker landed a three and Reed a jump shot before Leger-Walker gave New Zealand the lead 39-37 from the foul line. That prompted a China timeout followed by the tying basket from Ru Zhang.
Both teams struggled to find the basket early in the third but an 8-0 China run prompted JTF's coach Brent Matehaere to call a timeout.
Aliyah Dunn connected with a couple of free throws after the restart but a Jiaqi Wang triple extended the China advantage to 57-44. A 22-9 period in favour of the visitors gave China a significant 61-48 lead at three-quarter time.
The New Zealand offence continued to splutter, another 6-0 run from China extending their lead to twenty points, 68-48.
Local favourite Esra McGoldrick finally got the JTF's score moving with a strong left hand finish and a Jillings 'And 1' play continued a mini run; 68-53 with under five minutes to play.
Clarke, Jillings and the impressive Leger-Walker continued the resurgence forcing China to call a timeout with three minutes to play as their lead was trimmed to 70-59.
Three points from Clarke and a drive from Reed, 70-64, with 1:36 to play and the Canterbury crowd were in full voice behind the home team.
The 7-0 New Zealand run was broken by a Wang free throw. New Zealand were unable to capitalise on a couple of scoring opportunities, China edging a tight one 72-64.
JTF's Head Coach Brent Matehaere admitted before the game that it was going to be a mighty challenge taking on one of the Asian powerhouse teams. He said the challenge for him and his team will be to replicate the first half effort for a full twenty minutes when the two teams return to Cowles Stadium for the second game on Thursday at 7.30pm.
"I thought we coped well with their tall timber but it was their perimeter shooting in the third period that hurt us the most.
"We will go back and look at the tape and see what we can improve on for tomorrow. Going with a smaller lineup in the fourth and playing running basketball certainly drew the crowd into the game. Perhaps it is something we can do more of in Game Two," he said.