Kirk Penney hails the Tall Blacks' fighting spirit
Veteran guard Kirk Penney reached for the rugby analogy when describing the Tall Blacks' gloriously imperfect advancement to the top 16 of basketball's World Cup.
Penney and his New Zealand men's basketballers made it four straight appearances in the knockout stages at the hoops global event when they snuck home 67-65 against a gallant Finland side here early today to conclude pool play.
That saw the New Zealanders clinch fourth spot in Group C and a last-16 clash against Group D winners Lithuania early Monday (NZ time). It's a matchup the Kiwis are quietly confident about, after going so close to upsetting the Lithuanians on their home patch during their buildup tour.
The New Zealand effort was led by another monster display from fast-rising 20-year-old power forward Issac Fotu who led all scorers in the game with 18 points as well as eight boards. Mika Vukona added 12 rebounds as the Kiwis again manhandled their opponents on the boards to the tune of 38-28.
Penney, who had 11 points on four-of-17 shooting, said he was just relieved to keep the dream alive in what might well be his final appearance at this level.
"It just felt like a slugfest down the stretch there - nothing was really called, there was a lot of banging and hitting, and to come out with the win and mount a couple of defensive stands like we played on those last two possessions to win it was awesome," Penney said.
And Penney, who did not get much help from the referees, said the aesthetic quality of the victory mattered little, if nothing, headed into a big-time last-16 matchup against Lithuania.
"It doesn't matter," he said. "It's like a rugby game - it can be free-flowing and look nice or it can be 6-0 but you win and you don't really care. For us it was trudging through the mud a little bit but we got there.
"We obviously didn't play outstanding - well Isaac did a great job and Mika got an enormous rebound at the end of the game. It felt like no-one on the court was going to get it but him. It was good to secure that ball."
The Tall Blacks blew a third-quarter 20-point lead as the Finns closed to within a single point in a frantic finale. There was a lot scruffy about their work over the run home as they succumbed to the European side's pressure - and the finale left the Kiwi fans on the edge of their seats right to the very end.
But there was also plenty to admire about the character of the Kiwi outfit as they shook off an 0-3 start in pool play and found their way into the knockout rounds with two heady efforts with no margin for error.
Fotu, who is fast emerging as one of the individual stars of this World Cup, was not getting carried away with his second straight game-changing turn.
"I'm just waiting for my opportunity," he said. "I'm always ready on the bench. If coach gives me two minutes or 20 minutes, I go out there and try to bring energy to the team. This is good experience for me playing against the top teams in the world, and I think it will help my personal development."
But Fotu made it clear where he gained his inspiration.
"I grew up watching Mika, wanting to play like him. It's cool playing with him, he's just a beast on the rebounds. He's one of the most undersized guys, and as coach says it doesn't matter about the size, it's about the effort - and that's what we bring when we rebound."
Penney felt Fotu is developing a "beast mode" in these crunch games and Vukona is just loving having a young man lending his hand in some of the more blue-collar aspects of the game.
"He's an amazing kid. He just goes about things the quiet way. Obviously Hawaii saw that talent, the Breakers saw that talent and Nenad saw it three years ago when he first brought him on a Tall Blacks tour. He's slowly starting to show what he can do which is pretty exciting and he's only going to get better."
Marc Hinton travelled to the World Cup with assistance from Basketball NZ.
AT A GLANCE
Last 16 draw at World Cup
In Barcelona: Dominican Republic v Slovenia; USA v Mexico; New Zealand v Lithuania; Turkey v Australia.
In Madrid: France v Croatia; Spain v Senegal; Serbia v Greece; Brazil v Argentina.