Tall Blacks stave off elimination with big victory
Nenad Vucinic challenged his Tall Blacks to "bring it like men" today against the Ukraine, and they responded with a victory that keeps their basketball World Cup hopes alive.
Thanks in no small part to a pair of stunning turns off the bench from Everard Bartlett and Isaac Fotu, who combined for 24 points and 14 rebounds, and a massive effort on the boards, the New Zealanders put together a decisive 73-61 victory.
Needing to win their fourth Group C fixture in Bilbao, Spain, to have any chance of progressing to the knockout rounds, the Tall Blacks met their coaches' demands - and then some.
It was their first win of the tournament and left them now only needing to knock over Finland in the final pool match tomorrow to advance to the last 16 in Barcelona on a countback scenario.
It wouldn't be easy, with the Finns cheered on by their remarkable travelling army of over 8000 fans, but after starting 0-3 with defeats to Turkey, the Dominican Republic and USA, the New Zealanders have at least given themselves a shot at a fourth straight top-16 finish at the tournament.
"The coaches really challenged us last night," star shooting guard Kirk Penney explained.
"We had a meeting, and they challenged us to play much better, execute much better, and to bring it like men would bring it and I think the guys came out and did that.
"It's a great feeling to be able to respond like that against a team like Ukraine. Now we feel like our tournament is still alive. Our goal right now is to beat Finland in the last game."
The contributions off the bench of Bartlett and Fotu - the bro with the 'fro - were massive, both plus-20 in the plus/minus category. Bartlett knocked in four triples among his 14 points (4/5 FG, 4/5 3PT), with the Hawke's Bay sharpshooter adding four boards and two assists.
Fotu, the University of Hawaii junior, looked composed and measured at power forward as he added a big-time double-double of 10 points and 10 boards.
Penney said it was "huge" to see his young team-mates stepping up on the big stage.
"You're working as hard as you can to get open and you turn around and see a three go in - it's a great feeling.
''Everard did an awesome job, shot the ball incredibly well, and Isaac rebounded well and we were able to create opportunities for him."
Penney also found some rhythm. He led all scorers with 17 points (6/14 FG, 2/6 3PT) and snared seven boards. Vucinic felt his shooting star did not receive the protection he should have from the referees - but loved that his team-mates had his back.
"When that happens, when fouls are not called, others have to step up. And they did," Vucinic said.
"With so much attention to our main scorers like Kirk and Corey [Webster who had 11 points on four-of-seven shooting], guys like Everard and Isaac get a lot of opportunities and they used them so well."
The final margin was also critical for the Tall Blacks who pounded the Ukranians on the boards to the tune of 48-25 (18-8 on the O-glass). If they won tomorrow against the Finns they would likely be in a three-way tie for third and fourth, which made them very aware of the final scoreline.
Turkey's comeback overtime victory over Finland meant a Kiwi win would see them in a tie with Ukraine, who play USA tomorrow, and either the Domincan Republic or Turkey who were due to play on the final day. In that scenario, Ukraine could not head the New Zealanders.
"There are so many scenarios and we had to keep them all in our mind," Vuicinic said.
"It could be a three-way tie, so we did well to win by 12 points. Just to win would have made it very difficult, but a win like this makes it so much easier to go through if we win against Finland."
The Tall Blacks had led 36-30 lead at the half, mainly thanks to a 12-0 run either side of the first-quarter break, and extended that advantage to eight (53-45) by the final break as Bartlett and Penney found their range.
They also got key contributions from 19-year-old point guard Tai Webster whose eight points, seven boards and three assists were matched by some excellent defence on Ukraine star 'Pooh' Jeter, from Mika Vukona (seven points, six boards) and from the always livewire Casey Frank whose four points, four boards and four assists came with a plus/minus of plus-19.
They still turned the ball over too many times (19), but Ukraine coach Mike Fratello had no doubts about where the contest was decided.
"We didn't match their energy - it's as simple as that. They run good offence, and did a very good job of putting players in position to make shots. But it all came down to energy. They had high energy and we did not."
New Zealand 73 (Kirk Penney 15, Everard Bartlett 14, Corey Webster 11, Isaac Fotu 10), Ukraine 61 (Maxym Kornienko 15, Pooh Jeter 14, Ihor Zaytsev 10).1Q: 18-19; HT: 36-30; 3Q: 53-45.
*Marc Hinton travelled to the World Cup with assistance from Basketball NZ.