The MBO New Zealand Tall Blacks came up short in their opening FIBA World Cup Qualifying match, beaten by a sharpshooting Korean team 86-80 at TSB Arena in Wellington on Thursday night.
New Zealand could not shake off a slow start and were unable to get the stops they needed in the closing moments to keep Korea in reach, with the visitors making some tough baskets down the stretch to take the win.
Head Coach Paul Henare reflected on the reality of playing a team the quality of Korea to get their campaign underway.
“We got beaten by a very good team. We spoke about certain things, we knew what we were about to face. We faced a team that executes very well down the stretch. Towards the end we were able to put points on the board, finally, but the last three or four - off the top of my head - defensive possessions, we gave up buckets and they just kept stretching that lead out.”
Henare said his team did not give themselves a good enough shot at winning the game, with defence in particular letting them down, with Korea too good a team once they had their tails up.
“They’re (Korea) a hell of a team and they shoot the ball at a great clip and they play to their strengths really well. It wasn’t all doom and gloom; we had some really good defensive possessions and forced them into errors and to take tough shots, but you break down or have a miscommunication and they hit a three and they’re capable of doing that.”
Captain Mika Vukona echoed his coach in offering up no excuses, saying the effort was there, but the team just struggled to execute at the vital moments.
“The breakdowns earlier on in the game played a little part (in the loss). The guys put in a lot of effort and they’re a great team. It’s just that they played through to the very end of each shot clock. It’s a hard one to take and it’s going to be in the back of our mind going into the next game. The boys will be ready.
“Right now, we are disappointed, for ourselves and for the jersey, but mainly for our families and supporters, those that were in the stadium or watching at home, we know we are better than that, we have to make sure we learn the lessons and get the job done on Sunday, and then think about a win in Korea in February, but first up we have to get the win in Hong Kong.”
After a first half that neither team was able to dominate, Korea threatened to blow the game open in the third quarter, but the Tall Blacks drew on all their renowned determination and intensity to reduce a nine-point gap to just one at the third quarter break, and when Jarrod Kenny hit a corner three for the team to take the lead early in the fourth, the crowd sensed a home team surge.
But Korea showed their class, led by outstanding guard Junbeom Jeon with 22 points including 6 of 8 three pointers, as they made tough shots under pressure at the end of the shot clock to ultimately deny the New Zealanders.
Henare paid credit to Korea for the win, but did so through gritted teeth.
“I think we got outplayed. Korea played the better game for the majority of the game and whilst we had our chances, in the end we didn’t play well enough to win and that’s always going to hurt.”
The Tall Blacks now travel to Hong Kong to play their second game in Pool A on Sunday night, New Zealand time, with Henare intent on getting the win to split their opening weekend in World Cup Qualifying action.
Corey Webster led scoring for the Tall Blacks with 16, with brother Tai scoring 14, while Shea Ili and Isaac Fotu had 10. Vukona and Pledger pulled down 8 boards each while Tai Webster added 5 assists to his stat line.
MBO New Zealand Tall Blacks 80 (C Webster 16, T Webster 14, Ili 10, Fotu 10)
Korea 86 (Jeon 22, Lee 14, Oh 14)
BOX SCORE here.
The next game will be verse Hong Kong, live on Maori Television (1am Monday 27 November NZT). Live Stats here.