New Zealand were denied down the stretch, losing their opening FIBA World Cup game against Turkey 76-73. The Tall Blacks watched a 12-point fourth-quarter lead evaporate as a series of key plays caused a momentum shift that the Kiwis could not stop.
It was a 30-second period with four minutes left in the game that cost the New Zealanders. In this time they conceded nine points on the back of a technical foul to coach Nenad Vucinic and an unsportsmanlike foul to point guard Tai Webster. The technical was especially deadly, giving Turkey free throws after a New Zealand offensive foul as well as giving up a three-pointer the very next possession.
That movement cut a six-point lead to one and after finding himself isolated in defensive transition, Webster gave up an unsportsmanlike foul to surrender the lead.
It was a lead Turkey would not surrender. Despite their best efforts, New Zealand just could not put the ball through the hoop the way they had done so effectively for the majority of the game.
New Zealand will walk away ruefully. They were the better team for three quarters, and even after giving up the lead late in the third, fought back to get in front by 12 in the fourth. Their inability to close it out was the difference between the two teams.
Their intensity was outstanding, showing the typical desperation and fight of a New Zealand team. Mika Vukona, Rob Loe, Casey Frank, Isaac Fotu, BJ Anthony and Thomas Abercrombie were all prominent, crashing the boards and going after loose balls.
Despite giving up a significant height advantage to Turkey, they were able to claim 21 offensive rebounds. The Turkey big men did not box out well, but for the most part it seemed the Kiwis were just hungrier for the ball. They went after it aggressively and gave themselves multiple second-chance opportunities.
At the other end of the floor they did a good job containing the long Turkish front line. They made use of good footwork and forced their bigger opponents to shoot over them in the low post, which they did not do well for large parts of the game. Often they were forced into settling for outside jumpers and struggled shooting from here.
In contrast, New Zealand were outstanding shooting from outside. It was not just perennial scorer Kirk Penney who threatened, either, with Corey and Tai Webster both scoring well along with Loe and Frank.
In fact, Penney was well contained and struggled to find his range, finishing with only nine points and shooting 3-of-11. While this would normally make for a long night for the Tall Blacks, they were helped with contributions across the board.
Big men Loe and Frank both showed their range, particularly Loe, who shot a handy 3-of-4 from beyond the arc and also got a good tip-in.
Corey Webster was their most threatening player, though. He showed his ability to shoot from the outside like the others, but also was the only one who got the hoop effectively. Perhaps he was guilty of overshooting from the outside, but he hit some timely shots to keep New Zealand in front throughout and finished with a game-high 22 points.
It was all in vain, as the inability to make a shot down the stretch cost them. They did not give up, though, and kept their high intensity right until the final buzzer.
Despite the loss, New Zealand can take plenty of positives from this game. Most notably that they can still remain competitive when Penney is not shooting well, but also that their undersized line-up can compete with bigger teams down low.
They will enter their Day 2 game against the Dominican Republic full of confidence and should start as favourites to win.