They blew it.
The Tall Blacks knew it, their band of loyal fans knew it and even the Turkish knew it after a monumental opening day World Cup upset slipped through the Kiwis' hands.
It's a reflection really of how far this New Zealand men's team has come on the global hoops stage that there was nothing but frustration and exasperation over a 76-73 defeat to world No 7 Turkey as Group C sprung into action in this quaint Basque city.
The Tall Blacks had put themselves in a prime position when they led the Turkish, runners-up at the 2010 world championships, by 12 early in the final quarter and by 11 as the clock ticked inside the final five minutes.
But by their own admission they froze when one of their greatest moments was theirs for the taking. It didn't help either that just as the Turks were seizing momentum back with a 15-0 run, and the New Zealanders were missing nine straight shots, that two contentious calls turned this game on its head.
First, with three minutes 42 seconds remaining, star guard Corey Webster was called for a foul when he snaffled loose ball off Turkish guard Sinan Guler. Vucinic spread his hands in exasperation and was whistled for a technical, which turned into a four-point play for the charging Turks.
Then on the next play young point guard Tai Webster compounded an error when he had the ball stolen by Kerem Tunceri and was called for an unsportsmanlike stopping the fast break. Again marginal. Again a massive swing as the Turks converted it into a five-point possession.
Both Webster - the star of the show with a classy, game-high 22 points - and a less than stellar Kirk Penney (nine points on three-of-11 shooting) had good looks to tie in the closing seconds, but both rimmed out.
"They were shots that went in and out," reflected Webster. "I thought both were good actually. But we've got to start knocking those down when the game's on the line because that's what wins you games,"
Vucinic took his technical, and the extra points given up, on the chin afterwards, but made it clear he felt both calls were bad. It's understood high-ranking refs' bosses present agreed with his assessment.
"I got a tech foul, we had an intentional foul, so it was a lot to do with us losing our poise," a candid Vucinic admitted afterwards. "It was a very disappointing finish - offensively we froze and made some bad decisions.
"That's the disappointing aspect of this loss and something we have to rectify."
Vucinic also felt robbed over his tech. "I saw what I saw, and didn't think it should have been a foul. I didn't think I did enough to warrant a tech foul either - there were no bad words. I take that on myself. I told the guys after, maybe if I didn't get that tech it might have been a different result.
"It's a missed opportunity to get two points against one of the favourites in the section. We didn't do it and we've got to move on and [Dominican Republic next] is going to be a very tough, must-win game."
The Tall Blacks might not have won, but they certainly won the respect of Turkish coach Ergin Ataman who predicted even the mighty USA might find the tricky New Zealanders difficult to deal with.
"Their big men are shooters, and every time they play pick and pop," he said. "Second, they move a lot on the ball, and their motion offence is very difficult for teams in Europe. Nobody plays this type of basketball, with everybody on motion.
"Of course we know Penney and Webster are very good shooters, but this system, this basketball team will be very dangerous for all teams in our group. That's also for the US team."
It wasn't all doom and gloom. The Tall Blacks looked world class through the first three periods, and genuinely troubled the Turks with their ball movement, quickness, shot-making and tenacity on the boards - they won the final count 47-31.
Aside from Webster's classy display. Rob Loe's 11 points (4/7 FG, 3/4 3PT) and six rebounds (all offensive), 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.
It just wasn't quite enough.
Marc Hinton travelled to Spain with the assistance of Basketball New Zealand.
- Fairfax Media
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