Tall Blacks defy odds for incredible victory

New Zealand after the win, with James Hunter at the back. Photo: FIBA

New Zealand after the win, with James Hunter at the back. Photo: FIBA

ON the surface of it this might not seem that big a deal for Cambewarra’s James Hunter’s Tall Blacks - a victory over Lebanon at the Asia Cup.

The history books will record the numbers and the victory for New Zealand, but this was so much more than just a ‘dub’ in the win column for the Tall Blacks.

With an average age of 23 and little experience to call upon, few outside of the team gave the Tall Blacks much hope against the host nation tipped by many as a dark horse to win the whole tournament.

But the team dubbed ‘young bloods’ had other ideas and called upon all that is great about Tall Black culture to cultivate an 86-82 win.

It was a victory earned on graft, in your face defence that showed no let up and no end of skill in a white-hot atmosphere that none of this team have experienced before.

It was a win that will be savoured by this young group for years to come, and might well be looked back upon as the start of a special era in the game.

Head coach Paul Henare placed it right up there in his coaching career, in an atmosphere that he says he cannot recall ever being louder or more intimidating during his career.

“This ranks right up there, because of this team, their relative youth and the lack of experience in this group,” Henare said.

“But it is the growth I have seen - to see them grow and mature and play in an environment like that is right up there and I am so happy for the boys and they deserve all the plaudit that come their way, for me it is right up there.

“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, to compete well and be calm under that sort of pressure is amazing.

“We had only 10 turnovers in the game, the best we have had the whole tour, that was one of our key targets going into the game and I thought they did that well.”

New Zealand v Lebanon - Highlights - FIBA Asia Cup 2017

The noise in the stadium was truly deafening, with the home support like nothing this Tall Blacks group has experienced before.

Players literally could not hear each other from a few feet away, let alone hear anything from the bench, with Henare saying the silent drills they run on offence at practice paying off big time tonight.

“We do our silent 5 and 0’s and the boys learn to communicate without noise on the training court,” he said.

“There is a reason we do that and it is a night like tonight, so you can communicate in such an extreme atmosphere and I thought they did a great job.”

Henare had a special mention for captain Reuben Te Rangi, who came up big with his best performance on tour with 15 points, eight rebounds, three assists and a critical steal in the dying moments.

“I think Reuben’s growth and leadership over the past 12 to 18 months has been superb, but he led his team tremendously well, he battled all night long and defended Lebanon’s best player and he worked on every single possession,” he said.

“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 him and the growth he has made.”

New Zealand team photo, with James Hunter in number 13. Photo: FIBA

New Zealand team photo, with James Hunter in number 13. Photo: FIBA

While keen to enjoy the moment, Henare was already putting his game face on and contemplating a final pool match against Korea.

“Part of the message in the locker room was to celebrate this and enjoy the moment, but in less than 48 hours we play a very good Korean team,” he said.

“They shoot the ball well, they spread the floor, they are a different team, not as imposing as Lebanon but a very good team and a real challenge, one I am looking forward to seeing how this group reacts.”

There were so many contributors, so many special moments, so much character that it is hard to single them out.

Shea Ili had a career night, defending like a demon and posting 22 points and 4 assists, Te Rangi with his leadership and numbers on the night; the career best Tall Blacks efforts from Tohi Smith-Milner (15 &6) and Sam Timmins (13 & 8); the defensive efforts and critical buckets from Delany and Ngatai; the critical pair of threes drained by Ethan Rusbatch and the energy of Derone Raukawa – everyone - including those that didn't get on the floor, they all contributed on a special night for this emerging young group of players.

The Tall Blacks play Japan on Sunday, August 13.

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