Tall Blacks defeat Russia, win Stankovic Cup
Classy shooting guard Kirk Penney delivered a 30-point offensive masterclass to lead the Tall Blacks to a 80-77 victory over Russia in the final of the Stankovic Continental Cup in China.
The win reversed a three-point defeat in the qualifying round and secured Nenad Vucinic's New Zealand men's team a first ever title in the prestigious international tournament.
They also picked up the winner's cheque for $US30,000 (NZ36,000) as the Tall Blacks managed what the Boomers couldn't a week earlier when the Australians were beaten in the final of the first of back-to-back Stankovic Cup tournaments by Angola.
It was not a complete performance from the Tall Blacks - against a Russian side admittedly not near their full strength national side - there were too many turnovers for that.
But the New Zealanders did well to ride home on the back of a typical deadly perimeter performance from Penney who's off to play his basketball in Spain in the next European season.
Penney knocked down four three-pointers among his game-high haul but made no bigger shot than the contested jumper in the final minute of the match that extended a three-point lead to five and left the Russians with just a little too much to do in the final 40 seconds.
The classy Kiwi guard had 15 points in each half and went 10-of-12 from the free-throw line in an outstanding performance that underlined his class. He was later named as the tournament MVP and alongside team-mate Thomas Abercrombie was included in the All-Star 5.
Penney had some great support in the final from Abercrombie who had 15 points including a big-time trifecta early in the final quarter that extended the Kiwis' lead to 10 points. The livewire forward added four boards and was his usual presence at the defensive end.
The other standout performer for the Tall Blacks in the final was power forward Mika Vukona who finished with 16 points, five assists and six rebounds in a typically committed performance. Though dwarfed by the big frontline of the Russian team that will compete at the upcoming world university games, Vukona competed manfully to provide the inside presence the New Zealanders needed.
Centre Alex Pledger shook off early foul trouble to add nine points and seven boards for the New Zealanders who trailed 17-18 at the end of the opening quarter as the Russians ran off the last nine points, but jumped out to a nine-point halftime lead (45-36) on the back of a 28-18 second quarter.
"It's a great win. We're stoked," said Tall Blacks assistant coach Chris Tupu after the game. "We made some improvement in the tournament after initially losing to the Russians and that's a good thing.
"It was a tough game for us and a tough tournament. We've got lots to work on, but we're very happy to have four games in four days, winning three in a row. We go to camp in Italy knowing we've got plenty to work on."
Tupu said Penney's standout performance had been a key factor for the Tall Blacks, but not the only one.
"Kirk is a main scorer, there's no secret in that, but it's the other things around the court that contribute. We need his points but the hustle all over the court is important. There's people chipping in across the board. It's just the start for us leading up to and building towards Australia next month," added Tupu.
The Russians worked hard in the third quarter to close the deficit to six (55-61) as Penney finally started to miss from deep and the height advantage of the Europeans took a toll.
The New Zealanders looked in the box seat early in the final quarter when they led by 10 points with les than six minutes remaining before a Russian comeback and a series of Tall Blacks turnovers saw the deficit reduced to just a single point with still 3:30 remaining.
It was around then that Vukona showed what a legitimate force he is now at the international level making two key hoops and then a steal to keep the Kiwi lead around three heading inside the final minute.
Penney then stepped up to make his biggest shot - a contested jumper - to extend the lead to five which was too big a hill for the Russians to climb as the final seconds ticked over.
The Tall Blacks now fly to Italy for a week-long camp before heading on to a four-nation tournament in Macedonia and another in Turkey as they prepare for September's Olympic qualifying series against the Boomers in Australia.
New Zealand 80 (Kirk Penney 30, Mika Vukona 16, Thomas Abercrombie 15, Alex Pledger 9), Russia 77. 1Q: 17-18; HT: 45-36; 3Q: 61-55.