The New Zealand women’s U18 team has astounded the 3x3 world by winning the silver medal at the FIBA Under 18 3x3 World Cup in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia overnight.
Coach Justine Reed's side of Ashlee Strawbridge, Sharne Pupuke-Robati, Tayla Dalton and Charlisse Leger-Walker shone through on the half court to defeat Poland, Russia, Hungary, Japan and China on the way to the final. Charlisse Leger-Walker was named in the Tournament Team, seeing her acknowledged as one of the best age-group 3x3 players in the world. Only the exceptionally talented USA team stood in the way of a fairy tale finish.
The Kiwis were the underdogs against US. The young star guard and tournament MVP, Hailey Ann Van Lith, was supported by three teammates all over six foot: Olivia Aanisha Demya Cochran, Madison Aleigha Hayes, Rickea Velece Jackson. New Zealand had already had a taste of the USA’s firepower in their opening game of the tournament, in the pool round. USA won that early hit out 20-11.
Van Lith had lit up the court all week and the Kiwis came in with a plan to combat the US playmaker in the final. Leger-Walker opened the scoring by driving left off a Pupuke-Robati screen and calmly slot a left-handed layin. Van Lith tried to take it to the rim, but the Kiwis doubled-teamed the assault to strip the ball. The Kiwis were looking strong from the start.
Refusing to allow the US easy early-points, they played physical, content to send the US to the foul line. It took over 90 seconds for the Americans to score their first point. Van Lith then started to open, using her pace for two quick buckets. Add fouls and the US were suddenly 5-1 ahead.
Leger-Walker again showed her class, slotting a textbook reverse layup. She would pick up the majority of the Kiwi points with some strong shooting from deep. More than once, Strawbridge won possession through smart defensive play, showing why she is one of the best 3x3 U18 defensive players in the world. Tayla Dalton’s signature pace opened the court and resulted in clever points secured from both driving to the post and shooting from deep. Pupuke-Robati’s standout post-play throughout the tournament was under close watch by the US defence, but she used that to help create room for her team-mates. While the US managed to draw away, the Kiwis fought to bring it back within three points.
Ultimately the US were too good. Van Lith and the US’ talented tall-timber were on form. They managed to stay just out of reach to win 18-13. On the final whistle, the Kiwis huddled, showed their appreciation for each other and then turned to applaud the gold medallists. A class act by a class side.
Overall it was an inspiring road to the final. The Kiwis were courageous in their quarter-final defeat of Japan thanks to a game-winning Tayla Dalton two-pointer in overtime, taking the victory 14-12. It’s no secret that Japan’s 3x3 programme is one of the best in the world and their U18 girls team is proof of that. Yet the Kiwis showed New Zealand 3x3 talent is right there, despite the complete lack financial support from funders for the 3x3 programme. The Kiwis then defeated the might of China in the semi-final, 21-15. A huge achievement considering China holds the number one ranking.
The silverware is another a sign the New Zealand women’s basketball is continuing to rise. This inspiring result comes just before the 3x3 Tall Ferns attend the open women’s 3x3 World Cup later this month in Amsterdam, tipping off on 18 June. The team will be named early next week.