They made hard work of it, but New Zealand have hung on by the skin of their teeth, beating Finland on Thursday to advance in the FIBA Basketball World Cup. After leading by 20 at one stage, the Tall Blacks had to withstand a furious comeback from Finland, escaping with a 67-65 win.
Finland picked up their defensive intensity after half-time and applied pressure which the Tall Blacks struggled to cope with. Consequently the New Zealanders struggled to get many good shots off, often being forced to settle for long-range efforts from Kirk Penney.
The game reached a dramatic climax with just over a minute to play, as New Zealand committed an unsportsmanlike foul, giving Finland two free throws, possession and the chance to take the lead. Sasu Salin stepped to hit both free throws, but they were unable to capitalize on the extra possession, missing a shot and allowing Isaac Fotu to get the rebound.
In fact neither team could put the nail in the coffin of the other from this point. A Mika Vukona free throw was the only further point, as New Zealand withstood two late Finland possessions to claim the narrowest of wins.
For all of their problems in the second half though, New Zealand were outstanding in the opening 20 minutes.
Fotu led the way, checking into the game early for Vukona and proving the key man on the floor. He was impressive in the low post, showing nice touch around the hoop and rebounding well. Tai Webster impressed too, attacking the hoop aggressively and making a couple of tough finishes.
Finland on the other hand could not get their game going, getting out-hustled and struggling to get good shots.
With a lead of 20, it seemed New Zealand were destined for a big victory to secure their spot in the next stage.
But they took their foot off the throttle, just as they did against Turkey, allowing their lead to all but evaporate.
They could not buy a shot in the second half, as Finland guarded them closely and the referees called the game loosely, allowing for plenty of contact.
A handful of poor passes resulted, as did a series of long three-pointers. Kirk Penney again could not get his game going, shooting just 4-of-17 from the field and finishing with 11 points. However, he did hit a big three-pointer to stem a run from Finland late in the fourth.
As the old saying goes, sometimes it is better to be timely than good.
It was not pretty, but a win is a win and New Zealand will advance to face Lithuania in the round of 16.
While they will enter this game as heavy underdogs, the New Zealanders could not have hoped for a better matchup as the fourth qualifier from their group. The alternatives were Spain, Greece and the USA. Lithuania are a good team, but they certainly look the most beatable of those four.
If they are to win it though, New Zealand will have to lift their game and cannot afford to take their foot off the throttle for a third time.
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