Final quarter Lithuania slump sinks Tall Blacks


The Tall Blacks have again gone toe-to-toe with a world basketball powerhouse before a final quarter slump cost them the chance of a major scalp in the buildup to the upcoming World Cup in Spain.

Nenad Vucinic's New Zealand men's team led hosts Lithuania, ranked fourth on Fiba's world rankings, for the majority of their second game in the four-nation tournament in Kaunas before turnovers again proved costly in an 85-79 defeat.

The Kiwis led by five (23-18) at the end of the first quarter, by four (41-37) at the half and by 13 midway through the third period. The Lithuanians clawed the deficit back to three (58-55) heading into the final stanza and after trailing by five at the halfway point finished with a 24-13 surge over the final five minutes to swamp the fading Tall Blacks.

Kirk Penney led the way for the New Zealanders with a game-high 27 points (8/16 FG, 6/10 3PT) and seven rebounds, while young point guard Tai Webster had his best performance of the tour, chiming in with 12 points (5/10 FG), three boards and three assists.

Rugged forward BJ Anthony added 10 points (4/9 FG, 2/5 3PT), three boards and a pair of assists after sitting out the tournament opener, while naturalised American Casey Frank had a timely double of eight points and six boards in his quest to make the final cut for Spain.

The undersized New Zealanders also produced another outstanding rebounding effort, picking up 15 offensive boards as they thumped the Lithuanians 41-27 on the overall count. That's a huge plus heading to Spain.

But once again turnovers cost Vuicinic's men dearly, especially down the stretch. They had 23, compared with a much more respectable 12 committed by the hosts. Penney (5), Mika Vukona (5) and Tom Abercrombie (4) were the main transgressors.

The defeat followed a similar script to the Tall Blacks' opening loss to Slovenia when they had led by 10 points at halftime, before being pipped in a tight finish.

Assistant coach Paul Henare still found plenty of positives as the team continued to build toward the World Cup.

"Our rebounding was great, we beat a much bigger team on the boards, but unfortunately turnovers got us. There were too many errors at important times."

Henare said the turnover count was now a priority with the coaching staff as they fine tuned towards Spain.

"We are trying to replicate the pace we should be playing at in Spain and focus on taking care of the ball. It didn't sink in from yesterday to today - we need to value the basketball more against much more physically able bodies.

"The intensity and pressure has risen. Losing by just six is ridiculous with our turnovers. If we cut them by a third it is an easy victory for us, that is how close we are to getting across the line. We keep plugging away and make improvements. Our energy levels and defensive intensity were better."

Henare said the varied contributors to the cause was a good sign too.

"Kirk Penney gave us his usual offensive numbers, BJ had an impact when he took the floor, and was aggressive for his 10 points. Tai Webster had his most polished game on this tour - he looked like a real pro out there on the floor.

"The effort as a team on the boards was absolutely outstanding. To come through some of the things we did with that amount of turnovers and lead for the majority of the game only to lose it at the end - that was a damn good effort."

Attention now turned to the final game of the event against Greece tomorrow.

"They beat Slovenia by seven or eight points. It is our third game at a high intensity in three days, but this is what we will do in Spain against a similar calibre of teams. We need to continue to develop our systems and work on those problem areas.

"Everyone is fit and healthy now, it is nice to have all the seats on the bus taken up, and the team is feeling good."

The Tall Blacks were in Pool C of the World Cup based in Bilbao, alongside the USA, Turkey, Ukraine, Finland and the Dominican Republic. The tournament tipped off on August 30.

Lithuania 85 (Jonas Valanciunas 19, Paulius Jankunas 16) New Zealand 79 (Kirk Penney 26, Tai Webster 12, BJ Anthony 10). 1Q: 18-23; HT: 37-41; 3Q: 55-58.