CAMBEWARRA’S James Hunter and the Tall Blacks are welcoming, without question, the biggest challenge of the FIBA Asia Cup and their tour so far, a clash with Australia in Sunday’s semi-final.
While without their NBA players, the Australians are clearly the favourites and form team at the tournament, undefeated through pool play, the Andrej Lemanis coached Boomers accounted for China 97-71 in their quarter-final, running away from the Chinese in the final quarter.
They have a team stacked with ANBL experience and a core who have played considerable international basketball over recent years.
Familiar names like Mitch Creek, Jason Cadee, Daniel Kickert, Angus Brandt, Todd Blanchfield and Brad Newley lead the Boomers effort, and centre Matthew Hodgson is having a great tournament, averaging over four offensive rebounds per game as he dominates the paint with Brandt.
The Aussies have out rebounded their opponents to the tune of 43-25 on average through their four games. Guard Creek is averaging 15.8 points and just under six boards a game.
While New Zealand are also without their top players, this young Tall Blacks team is made up of mostly semi-professional players, with some plying their trade in the Aussie State League or ANBL, some from the New Zealand NBL and others who are still at College (or in Isaac Letoa’s case, about to leave for his first taste of NCAA basketball).
Tall Blacks Head Coach Paul Henare says that while clearly underdogs for the clash, that is typically something that sits well with New Zealand teams, and he does not see his young team being fazed going into this one.
“We have a bit of a tradition of playing well as underdogs and I guess in most big international games at FIBA tournaments, that is very much the case,” Henare said.
“Australia is a strong team, well coached and hungry for success as many of their players fight for inclusion in the later FIBA World Cup Qualifying windows.
“But as has been the case throughout this tour, our group is eager to learn and not frightened of any challenge put in front of them.
“The difference perhaps tomorrow is that there is a degree of familiarity with the Australians. The likes of Reuben, Shea, Finn, Jordan and Ethan know these guys well from the Aussie league, they are just more familiar, we know their games and their strengths and perhaps any weaknesses that we will try and exploit.”
One thing is for sure, this New Zealand team will leave no stone unturned in their drive for success at the tournament.
Buoyed by their progress in group play where they defeated hosts Lebanon and earned an automatic quarter final spot, they are keen to get back on the floor and take on the green and gold, with experienced small forward Jordan Ngatai summing up the attitude in the team.
“We are looking forward to this and can’t wait to play to earn a spot in the final,” he said.
“Being such a young and inexperienced group maybe our naiveté is at times helping us.
“Most of us haven’t been here before so we are not getting too wound up about how it is going to go, we are just listening to the coaches, playing for each other and executing as best we can.
“We have nothing to lose and will take the same approach tomorrow night, and in doing so we certainly believe we can get the win, why not?”
The team will be looking to that young leadership group to forge a path through the Aussies, with Shea Ili proving unstoppable at times in the tournament at the point, best highlighted by his 19 points and 13 assists in the quarter-final win over Jordan.
He has enjoyed good support from the entire roster, with captain Reuben Te Rangi, Finn Delany, centre Sam Timmins and Ngatai finding strong form at the right end of the tournament.
Henare stresses that the effort to date has been very much a squad one, with everyone playing their part.
“Tall Blacks basketball is more than you see on court in 40 minutes, it is about how the team has each other’s backs, support each other on and off the court and how hard they train,” he said.
“Sometimes our scrimmages have been tougher than our games, and that is down to the work of the entire group, the 12 of them pushing each other to play harder.
“One of our mantras on this tour is ‘improve every day’ and if we can do that tomorrow against Australia, we will be in with a shot and us as a coaching staff will be happy.”
The match is at 1.30am Sunday and can be streamed here: www.maoritelevision.com