Paul Henare's Tall Blacks upset Lebanon to improve to 2-0 at Fiba Asia Cup
Paul Henare's 'Baby' Tall Blacks are growing up fast.
The New Zealand men's basketballers have had bigger wins on the international stage, but few as meritorious as their monumental 86-82 upset of tournament hosts Lebanon on Thursday (Friday morning NZ Time) in their second game of the Fiba Asia Cup in Beirut.
Remember this is for all intents and purposes a development team masquerading as the Tall Blacks as Henare rolls the dice for this first campaign in the reconfigured Asia zone with a carefully thought-out plan to rest his senior players and build depth and competition in his programme.
In essence Henare has put the hoops education of his young group, average age 23, including five international debutants, on fast forward. And they are clearly quick learners, as evidenced by a result over Lebanon that few would have seen coming.
The young Tall Blacks kept their composure magnificently in front of a big and vocal home crowd that produced an intimidating atmosphere. They got their noses in front (42-40) by halftime, extended out by as many as nine in the third quarter and held firm as the Lebanon side got back on terms in the final period.
But down the stretch it was the youngsters from New Zealand who made the crunch plays, with skipper Reuben Te Rangi at the forefront with a big late triple, and then a crucial steal that led to Finn Delany's game-clinching layup.
"This ranks right up there," said coach Henare of the biggest upset of the tournament so far. "I am extremely proud. Obviously the result in an environment like that is huge, but the growth of this group in such a short time is amazing.
"To be able to absorb that pressure and atmosphere, and to compete well and be calm under that sort of pressure is amazing. We had only 10 turnovers – the best we have had the whole tour."
The Tall Blacks were very, very good as a group. They got after it defensively, grabbed a decisive 17 offensive boards and gave themselves 13 more shots than their opponents. And they looked after the ball.
Lebanon, paced by a game-high 33 points from 38-year-old legend Fadi El Khatib, shot a stellar 53 per cent from the floor, but were simply out-hustled by Henare's energetic youngsters who made all the big plays down the stretch to ice the victory, and improve to 2-0 in Group C.
"To see them grow and mature and play in an environment like that is right up there for me," added a rapt Henare. "I am so happy for the boys and they deserve all the plaudits that come their way."
Two young men who will surely have a future in these Tall Blacks even when the big guns return provided the most significant individual contributions.
Breakers point guard guard Shea Ili, who looks poised for a breakthrough season in the Australian NBL, paced the New Zealanders with 22 points (7/14 FG, 2/4 3PT), three rebounds and four assists.
Te Rangi was also magnificent as he added 15 points (6/10 FG), eight boards and three assists, and was such a rock when his team needed it most down the stretch.
"Reuben's growth over the past 12-18 months has been superb, and he led his team tremendously well," added Henare. "He battled all night, defended Lebanon's best player and he worked on every single possession.
"He was huddling his team, he was leading his team and for a 22-year-old to do that, I just told him I was proud of the growth he has made."
Washington University big man Sam Timmins chipped in with 13 points (6/10 FG) and eight rebounds for the Kiwis, while Tohi Smith-Milner added a valuable 15 points and six boards (and had a plus/minus of +13), while Finn Delany (six points, five rebounds, two steals) and Ethan Rusbatch (six points on two big triples) also founds ways to contribute.
The Tall Blacks meet the tough South Koreans (1-1) next up early Sunday (NZT) in what will be the pool decider, with Henare keen to quickly shift the focus.
"Part of the message in the locker-room was to enjoy the moment, but in less than 48 hours we play a very good Korean team. They shoot the ball well and they spread the floor. They are not as imposing as Lebanon but a real challenge. I'm looking forward to seeing how this group reacts."
Tall Blacks 86 (Shea Ili 22, Reuben Te Rangi 15, Tohi Smith-Milner 15, Sam Timmins 13) Lebanon 82 (Fadi El Khatib 33). 1Q: 19-23, HT: 42-40, 3Q: 67-61