New Zealand Select came through the toughest test so far on their tour of China and chose a great time for some clutch plays as they won the opening game of the Four Nation Tournament in Hancheng, 79-77 over Montenegro.
With Judd Flavell taking the head coaching role, the young New Zealanders showed incredible composure under immense pressure, with key plays at both ends of the floor earning a hard-fought win in front of a large crowd.
The New Zealanders were superbly led by captain Ethan Rusbatch, the Bay Hawks guard led all scorers with 22 points, including five triples. Big men Hyrum Harris (12 and 7), James Hunter (11 points) and Dominique Kelman-Poto (11 and 4) all got amongst it, with the one-handed slam from Hunter one of the highlights of the night.
Flavell was delighted in his team’s ability to stay calm in a frantic final minute, when the lead changed hands numerous times before Kelman-Poto spun through three defenders in the paint to give his side a lead they would not relinquish on the final possession.
“This tour and the whole concept of New Zealand Select is about experience, giving young players the chance to soak up this sort of atmosphere in a foreign country and to grow as young men and basketballers, and we certainly saw some growth tonight in this group.
“International basketball will throw absolutely everything at you, tonight we had a 30 minute delay to the start of the game with the players waiting through an opening ceremony and a fierce contest thanks to Montenegro, but they came through with flying colours.
“The next lesson is one of recovery, they have to do all they can in the next 20 hours to be ready to go again tomorrow night against Cameroon, and after beating them twice already on tour, you just know they are going to throw everything at us.”
There was never more than two points difference in a quarter in a closely fought contest, with the New Zealand Select team earning a 24-23 first quarter lead on the hot hand of Rusbatch, with four of his triples coming in the first ten minutes.
The guards were in for a torrid night, with Montenegro pressing at every opportunity, but Derone Raukawa (9 points) and Isaac Letoa (5 assists) stayed calm and found the right play at the right time, with the Kiwis then playing lock down defence on the last possession to protect their lead.
New Zealand Select 79 (Rusbatch 22, Harris 12, Hunter 11, Kelman-Poto 11)
Montenegro 77 (Perovic 19, Kne 18)