New Zealand Tall Blacks edged by Slovenia
There were plenty of positives in defeat for Tall Blacks coach Nenad Vucinic in Lithuania today - but he was having none of them.
His World Cup-bound New Zealand men's team gave the quality Slovenia team, led by Phoenix Suns star Goran Dragic, a real run for their money in the four-nation tournament opener in Kaunas.
The Slovenians ran out 80-74 winners, but not before being pushed to the limit by a Tall Blacks side that was playing its first game in a week and had to shake off an illness that ran through the camp in the leadup.
The New Zealanders had led 37-27 at halftime, and in a game featuring 18 lead changes were right in the contest until the Slovenians nailed victory inside the final minute.
The in-form Corey Webster was again in standout form for the Tall Blacks, notching a game-high 23 points (8/13 FG, 4/6 3PT) to go with two boards and two steals, with chief support coming from Kirk Penney's 17 points (5/14 FG, 3/9 3PT), five rebounds and four assists.
But sub-par ball security and some costly defensive lapses left Vucinic fuming at the end of a contest that showed his team is not too far off the level they'll need for Spain.
His team coughed up 24 turnovers against just nine by the steadier Slovenians – and in the end the easy points generated by the takeaways proved the difference in a tight contest.
Slovenia outscored New Zealand 22-8 in points off turnovers, though the Kiwis thumped the European side on the boards (42-28) and won second-chance points 19-3.
"Our defensive intensity dropped in the second half, conceding 30 points in the last quarter which is disappointing," Vucinic said.
"Defensively we allowed them some easy transitions, most coming from our turnovers. Again they were too high."
Vucinic challenged his team to lift their levels even further as they face similarly tough game at this event against Greece and hosts Lithuania, and then back to backs against Serbia to round out preparation for the World Cup in Spain.
"European teams are different, they are two levels from the teams we played in China," Vucinic added. "The fact we didn't have a game for seven or eight days got us a little tonight -- only games can prepare you for this intensity.
"We need to do a better job on offence, with our screens and run harder cuts. We were also a little bit rusty after a couple of days of easy training after the illness, but the execution was pretty poor turnover wise and ultimately cost us."
The roster was again rotated as coaching staff look for the ideal combinations ahead of Spain. BJ Anthony and a still ill Lindsay Tait sat out the game.
Penney led the Tall Blacks in minutes with 34, while Webster played 30. Naturalised Americans Nick Horvath and Casey Frank, duelling for one spot in Spain, both showed flashes of what they're capable of.
Horvath had a game-high nine rebounds and three points on one-of-three shooting, while Frank contributed two points (1/3 FG), two boards and two assists.
"We are not too much further away in terms of decisions," Vucinic said. "Both had similar court time with Nick rebounding better than Casey but Casey offering us more options. We are looking at how they play with other players in the rotation."
Vucinic acknowledged there were some positives, particularly after the bout of illness that disrupted preparations, but demanded an improvement in ball security.
"Offensively once we can get the shot off we are OK but again we had too many turnovers, [gave up] too many left possessions – they had 65 shots to our 58 -- plus too many free-throws. We did a great job of rebounding however."
Slovenia were led by 18 points and eight assists from Dragic.
Slovenia 80 (Goran Dragic 18, Zoran Dragic 13, Domen Lorbek 12, Edo Muric 11) New Zealand 74 (Corey Webster 23, Kirk Penney 17) 1Q: 14-13; HT: 27-37; 3Q: 50-46.
What did you make of the Tall Blacks' World Cup campaign?