Unlikely heroes keep NZ's Cup dreams alive

STANDING TALL: Isaac Fotu and spot minutes man Everard Bartlett helped inspire the Tall Blacks to a crucial win over Ukraine at the World Cup.
STANDING TALL: Isaac Fotu and spot minutes man Everard Bartlett helped inspire the Tall Blacks to a crucial win over Ukraine at the World Cup.

The Tall Blacks needed something special on Thursday to keep the World Cup dream alive, but no one figured it would be provided by spot minutes man Everard Bartlett and his bench brigade sidekick Isaac Fotu.

Fotu and Bartlett emerged as the unlikely heroes as the Tall Blacks kept their top-16 hopes alive at the World Cup in Spain with a 73-61 victory over Ukraine. It was exactly the margin they needed, too.

That improved the New Zealanders to 1-3 in Group C here in the Basque city of Bilbao, and left them needing just to beat Finland in their final pool game early on Friday (NZ time) to secure a spot in the knockout stages in Barcelona.

It was a game that needed something special for the Tall Blacks to halt their three-game losing skid and was provided in stunning fashion by the unlikely duo who played the serious minutes down the stretch while starters Mika Vukona and Tom Abercrombie sat and watched in admiration.

Lethal lefty Bartlett was money, the Hawke's bay gunner knocking down four of his five three-point attempts to finish with 14 points to go with four boards and two assists. While he was on court the Tall Blacks outscored the Ukrainians by 20 points - a mark he shared with Fotu.

The big-haired Aucklander who's about to start his junior year at the University of Hawaii mixed a succession of sweet jumpers with some thunderous rebounds to post a double-double of 10 points and 10 boards.  

Both later revelled in the fact they were able to play such key roles when their team needed them most.

"We knew this was a do-or-die situation and that was all the confidence I needed right there," Bartlett said. "The team came out energetic from the tipoff. It's do or die again now with another game we need to win, and it's on."

Bartlett said the "backs against the wall" mindset suited the Tall Blacks.

"We shouldn't be there in the first place but when we're there we fight. That's the nature of New Zealand basketball and our team. We need to exploit our depth, we need everybody to step up, we need everybody to come in and play their part in order to win. We need to play as a team to get wins and that's what we did tonight."

Fotu revealed a gee-up from his Hawaii coach Gib Arnold, who's in town to keep an eye on his star pupil, had helped lift his aggression levels.

"He's been watching and told me to stay aggressive and keep shooting the ball, so that's what I did. They were definitely some wise words," Fotu said.

Fotu is looking more and more comfortable in the forward role at this tournament. He has genuine size and a nice shooting touch and says his mindset is all about playing a role in this team.

"Just as a younger player I need to come in and do what young players do -- get rebounds and bring energy and that's what I'm trying to do. Luckily my shot was falling today so that helped as well."

Fotu was also relieved the Tall Blacks had finally delivered on the ability they showed throughout their long buildup tour.

"We played how we can play and how we know we can play and every point counted today. We wanted to get as many points as we could on them because it's all going to count in the end."

It wasn't all about the young 'uns and the unheralded today, though 19-yaer-old point guard Tai Webster continued his impressive form in the starting role. His line of eighth points, seven boards and three assists was almost as good as his energetic defence on star Ukraine playmaker Eugene 'Pooh' Jeter who went five-of-16 for his 14 points.

Veteran shooting guard Kirk Penney showed a welcome return to form with a game-high 17 points (6/14 FG) and seven boards, while Vukona had seven points, six rebounds and a pair of assists and played some excellent interior defence on the Ukraine bigs.

Naturalised American Casey Frank played a role too. He brought the visible emotion and made some key touches en route to four points, four boards and four assists.

The 36-year-old, on his farewell tour with the Tall Blacks, was rapt they kept their knockout stage hopes alive.

"I'm real happy for Everard - the way he shot the ball really changed the game," Frank said. "Isaac's pick and pop jumpers really kept us in it and Tai came out and expended a lot of energy on Jeter. Pooh is a fantastic player and it was our game-plan to use our energy on defence to keep him in check."

Frank said it was always going to be an emotional game for him. "Everybody is passionate about the game but some of the guys are a little more inward about it. Certainly not me. It was a big game, we're playing for our lives, and when that's happening you've got to be emotional.

"We're at our best when we have everything to lose. We played like it today and hopefully we can come out tomorrow and execute with the same passion."

The big, bearded Kiwi-American said Barcelona was very much still in his travel plans.

"It would be bitterly disappointing for all of us in that room if we don't get it done tomorrow. We came out and played like we really had something to lose, finally executed to the level we can execute, and I expect the same tomorrow."

The Tall Blacks' final pool game against Finland, with their travelling army of 8000 fans in attendance, will tip off on Friday at 1am NZ time.

* Marc Hinton travelled to the World Cup with assistance from Basketball NZ.