Tall Blacks teenager shines against Serbia
Nineteen-year-old point guard Tai Webster picked a big moment to remind his coach that he's now the premier playmaker in the Tall Blacks squad soon to battle the world in Spain.
Webster was one of three New Zealanders to break the 20-point mark as the Tall Blacks secured the signature victory they desired ahead of the upcoming World Cup, upsetting hosts, and world No 11, Serbia 102-96 in Belgrade to end their buildup tour in style.
There was no surprise in the team-leading contributions from Kirk Penney (29 points and six assists) and Mika Vukona (22 points and seven rebounds), but when their young starting point guard joined them in posting eye-catching numbers it was deeply significant.
It was a victory that was not only special for the Tall Blacks' Serbian-born coach Nenad Vucinic who had family and friends among the crowd in Belgrade, but served notice that the under-sized New Zealanders will once again be a threat to anyone who takes them lightly in Spain.
And it now appears Webster will be a key part of that after he produced a compelling display in the most significant result of the New Zealand team's 16-game pre-World Cup schedule.
The youngster, who has completed his freshman season at the University of Nebraska, had 21 points in 32 minutes and 40 seconds of quality point guard play. He went 11-of-13 from the line, four-of-10 from the floor and swished two of his three triple attempts. He also added two assists and four rebounds and, importantly, had just two turnovers.
The breakout display came with older brother and star two-guard Corey Webster sidelined with an ankle injury and was a timely reminder that the youngster deserves quality minutes in Spain as part of the backcourt rotation.
"I put the kid in the team two years ago at just 17 because I feel I've got a good nose for players and he's a player," Vucinic said after the game. "He played on a high, high level tonight. Of course he's 19, he's going to go up and down a little bit, but he's a capable player, he's got the mentality for the game, and has also got the ability.
"It's just a matter of time when he's going to get to a high level. He's a good kid as well, really enjoyable to have in the team."
It was an impressive bounce-back performance from the New Zealanders in their final pre-World Cup hitout, especially after they had gone so close in the first game in Belgrade before being pipped 83-79. They shot very well (57 percent overall and 55 from deep), were just minus-one on the boards and kept their turnovers to a much more respectable 12.
They took control of a free-flowing game with a 30-14 second quarter keyed by the hot hand of Penney and this time finished strongly. Webster, Casey Frank and Vukona all made big plays down the stretch to nail the notable scalp that will really lift the side as they head to Spain.
Penney was a scorching five-of-seven from distance, a perfect six-of-six from the line and added three boards to round out an outstanding all-round game. Vukona also weighed in with his best performance on tour, going 10-of-13 from the floor and dishing out three assists.
Frank (eight points/six rebounds), Everard Bartlett (eight points) and Rob Loe (six points) also chipped in at vital times for a victory that Vucinic rated an important confidence-booster.
"It was a great occasion, we played vey well, and we won in a stadium where very rarely any team in the world wins," Vucinic said. "We did that and had the arena applauding us at the end. The boys absolutely take all the credit for this amazing win.
"Beating top European teams in Europe is as tough as it gets, and it's always good to get over the line. I am really excited about the game today but we will come down quickly from this as we fly tomorrow to Spain and get straight back into training and scouting for this first game."
Vucinic hopes Webster's ankle, which he rolled at training the day before the game, will be fully recovered by the time the tournament opener against Turkey rolls round on October 30.
"That was a big blow -- he is playing very well and a big part of our game, especially at the offensive end. The sprain itself is not bad but the timing is bad and I hope he's not going to lose too much form before the first game in Spain."
The New Zealanders play in Group C at the World Cup based in Bilbao, alongside the USA, Turkey, Ukraine, Finland and Dominican Republic.
New Zealand 102 (Kirk Penney 29, Mika Vukona 22, Tai Webster 21), Serbia 96 (Nemanja Bjelica 17, Miroslav Raduljica 14, Vladimir Stimac 14, Nenad Kristic 10, Milos Teodosic 10). 1Q: 22-29; HT: 52; 43; 71-68.