Although they fell short of their bid to make it to to next month’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, New Zealand’s tough Tall Blacks earned the admiration of their rivals, including early Manila Olympic Qualifying Tournament finalist Canada.
The Tall Blacks nearly overcame the sudden absence of top forward Isaac Fotu behind their fluid showing on both ends but eventually ran out of steam in the stretch, dropping a 72-78 decision to the Canadians in their knockout semifinals battle before a good-sized Saturday crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Prized backcourt tandem Corey Webster sizzled anew with a game-high of 21 points while his younger Tai dished out an all-around outing of 15 markers, 10 rebounds, four assists, a block and as many steal for the Tall Blacks, who gave the Canadians all they could handle.
“You gotta give New Zealand a lot of credit. They’re a well-coached team, they fought ’til the end,” said top Canada center Tristan Thompson, who notched his first double-double this tourney with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Thompson’s Canadian mentor, Jay Triano, shared the same sentiment, saying: “They gave us a tough game and they’ve been very good throughout the tournament.”
As solid as their latest performance was, the absence of the 6-foot-8 Fotu. who injured his calf muscle early in the second frame, hurt the Tall Blacks’ chances.
“Losing Isaac changed the way we played,” lamented New Zealand coach Paul Henare. “We lost one of our most influential players. We really needed him.”
Without Fotu, versatile Thomas Abercrombie had to do more than what is asked of him and he responded big time with 16 points, including a two-handed dunk off a Shea Ili feed that tied things up at 71-apiece with less than four minutes to play.
The Tall Blacks, however, struggled from there, falling into a maze of errors while missing makable shots, no thanks to the Canadians’ rejuvenated defensive stand.
“We gave ourselves a great chance of winning this game but a couple of things late cost us,” lamented Abercrombie, adding the Tall Blacks have nothing to be ashamed of.
“I’m really proud with the way we played tonight even with an early adversity of losing Isaac early on,” he added, an observation echoed by Henare, 37.
“I thought the guys played with confidence. They moved the ball well, we got some open shots. We’re outsized and outmatched but we held our ground,” he stressed.
Although he’s painful to see their efforts go down the drain, Henare is confident the latest trial will bring the best from the Tall Blacks, saying: “Those guys who will be here for a long time will learns from this experience.” – By Jerome Lagunzad
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