Late meltdown sees Tall Blacks fall to Turkey
The Tall Blacks are vowing to put a crushing, dramatic and controversial opening day FIBA World Cup defeat behind them as they look to regroup for a short-turnaround before facing Dominican Republic.
The New Zealand team blew not just a 12-point fourth-quarter lead to fall 76-73 to Turkey in their opening Group C game in Spain's Basque city of Bilbao on Saturday (Sunday NZ time), but also the chance to tuck away a massive upset and take a giant stride towards the knockout round.
By their own admission they "froze" at the offensive end after leading by a dozen (64-52) early in the final quarter and by 11 (72-61) with just under five minutes remaining.
It was very much one that got away from the Tall Blacks as they imploded over the run home - letting a marginal foul call on star player Corey Webster knock them off their stride.
Webster, who finished with a game-high 22 points, and star shooting guard Kirk Penney, who had nine points, both missed three-point attempts in the closing seconds to force overtime.
They should never have been in that position, though, as the New Zealanders missed nine straight field-goal attempts over the run home and allowed the Turks to go on a 15-0 run that salvaged an unlikely victory.
The controversy came late when New Zealand coach Nenad Vucinic picked up a costly - and, he thought, unjust - technical foul when Webster was whistled for an offensive foul on Turkish guard Sinan Guler as he won possession in a tussle for the ball. The Turks slotted both free-throws and scored on the ensuing possession to close to within two points and set up the dramatic finale.
Tai Webster turned the ball over on the next possession and was called for an unsportsmanlike foul, leading to two Turkish free-throws and a three-pointer, putting them up 75-72 with 3:25 to play.
There was also controversy early when the Turkish team walked off the court right when the Tall Blacks were starting their Tu Kaha O Pango Te Kahikatia haka, reintroduced this year after a seven-year hiatus. If it had been rugby there would have been an international outcry, but the Tall Blacks later shrugged off the show of disrespect as they were forced to re-align their challenge towards their opponents' bench.
Really, another haka hoops snub was the least of their worries. They have to face the Dominican Republic in 18 and a-half hours' time in a second-day clash that Vucinic tagged "must-win".
"It was a very disappointing finish for us - offensively we froze and made some bad decisions," Vucinic said. "It's the nature of the tournament we have to forget about this game and move on towards the crucial game against Dominican Republic tomorrow.
"We spoke about this [situation]. We are mentally prepared for this. We know we have to forget wins and losses very quickly because if you don't it's going to hurt you the next day. We are prepared for it, we will deal with it in the right way and come back and play tomorrow."
Corey Webster, whose game-high offensive explosion deserved a much better result, repeated Vucinic's assertion that the team froze over the run home.
"It's done now and we've got to prepare for tomorrow. It's disappointing but it's not the end of the world. We've got another game and we've got to start preparing for that right now."
The slick guard, who had the crowd chanting "MVP, MVP" in his honour near the end, said he felt the referees got it wrong when they made that contentious late foul call.
"I didn't think it was an offensive foul, we were both hustling for the ball and I guess we were both holding each other. At the time I was pretty surprised. It was a tough call and sort of changed the rhythm of the game a little bit."
Webster had a sizzling offensive game, going 10-of-22 from the floor as he mixed some dazzling drives to the hoop with a series of sweet jumpers. But he would have been disappointed to go just two-of-10 beyond the arc, and especially to see his late attempt to tie the scores rim out - as did Penney's soon after.
"I thought both of them were good actually," Webster said. "We've got to start knocking those down. When the game's on the line that's what wins you games."
Big Rob Loe also produced a solid night's work for the Tall Blacks, finishing with 11 points (4/7FG, 3/4 3pt) and six rebounds (all off the offensive glass) as his pick-and-pop ability forced the Turks to bench NBA centre Omer Asik for the entire second half.
The Turks did a great job limiting Penney to just nine points on three-of-11 shooting, while Isaac Fotu (eight points, four boards), Tai Webster (seven points, five rebounds, two assists), Mika Vukona (a game-high eight rebounds) and Casey Frank (five points, three boards and one superb block at the end of the third quarter) all chipped in at various times.
Tom Abercrombie looked a little shy of his best at the offensive end, but did snaffle seven rebounds as the New Zealanders thrashed the sizeable Turks 47-31 in the battle of the boards.
But in the end it was a massive opportunity lost to secure a huge upset against the 2010 tournament runners-up. After leading 38-28 at the half and 56-52 heading into the final period, the New Zealanders looked in an unassailable position before their offence completely dried up. Freeze-dried, if you listened to a clearly disappointed Vucinic afterwards.
Earlier, the Dominican Republic were beaten 72-62 by the Ukraine. The Caribbean nation paid the price for a slow start to the third quarter, allowing the Europeans to go on a 14-0 run after being locked at 27-27 apiece at the major break.
Ukraine point guard Pooh Jeter, who led his team with 16 points, said it had been a case of his team eventually finding its feet after halftime. "Both teams in the beginning were a little nervous, a little too excited. But in the second half we started getting in the groove and making our shots," he said.
Turkey 76 (Oguz Savas 16, Emir Preldzic 14, Baris Hersek 11) Tall Blacks 73 (Corey Webster 22, Rob Loe). 1Q: 8-17, HT: 28-38, 3Q: 52-56
Marc Hinton travelled to Spain with the assistance of Basketball New Zealand.