Tall Blacks just pipped 83-79 by classy Serbia
The Tall Blacks rediscovered their A game in Serbia on Thursday (local time) but once again came up just short of a confidence-boosting victory ahead of the World Cup in Spain.
In the first of two internationals against the Serbians, Nenad Vucinic's New Zealand men's team were pipped 83-79 in another positive indicator the Tall Blacks are playing at a high level ahead of the global tournament.
The New Zealanders went toe to toe with the highly rated Serbian team throughout but again could not get over the line in a tight finish. They led by three (45-42) at the half, and trailed by just a single point (60-61) heading into the final term in front of a vocal, sellout home crowd.
They lost previously to Slovenia and Lithuania in similar circumstances in Lithuania, before being blown away by Greece in the final game of a four-nation tournament there.
The New Zealanders were led in scoring by Corey Webster's 18 points (6/13 FG, 4/9 3PT), while Everard Bartlett chipped in with 13 points, Kirk Penney had 12 points (5/10 FG), Mika Vukona added 12 points and eight rebounds and Casey Frank had a nice double of nine points and nine boards.
Once again the under-sized Tall Blacks won the rebound count, 41-30, to demonstrate they are performing well in this important area.
The Serbians had been in good form coming into the fixture, with recent victories over Turkey (79-64), Argentina (85-67) and France (79-69) in World Cup buildup games.
"That was bittersweet for us," assistant coach Paul Henare said afterwards. "We were poised and in control for the majority of the game and came close. But we spoke afterwards about not being satisfied with coming close, we are trying to beat these teams on their home floor and we are desperate to get over the line.
"With how the game played out and the way the boys played, however, there are very important and positive signs heading into Spain."
Henare lamented a few "dubious calls" from the home referees that did not help the Kiwi cause, but said they were part and parcel of playing in this part of the world.
Most pleasing was an improvement in the turnover count. "We had 15 tonight which is three or four too high but we have shaved 10 off what we have been averaging, and in the last quarter it was only three so we made some good strides there," Henare said.
"We shot the ball well and defensively we did a good job but they shot the lights out on the free-throw line (24/26) and we fell short in that area."
Tom Abercrombie sat out the game with a minor abdominal strain. The two teams will meet again in early Monday (NZ time) before the Tall Blacks head to Spain for a short camp ahead of the World Cup.
New Zealand will play in the Bilbao-based Group C in Spain where they will meet Turkey, the Dominican Republic, the USA, Ukraine and Finland.
Serbia 83 (Miroslav Raduljica 21, Bojan Bogdanovic 16) New Zealand 79 (Corey Webster 18, Kirk Penney 12, Mika Vukona 12). 1Q: 22-24; HT: 42-45; 3Q 61-60