The Tall Blacks trailed Lebanon for most of their world cup qualifier in Rotorua. It was only in the final few seconds that they scraped ahead and held for a 63-60 victory.
'Play to the final whistle' is an age-old sports adage, but for Paul Henare's side it rang true last night in Rotorua.
Shooting only 2-12 in the first quarter, the Tall Blacks quickly found themselves trailing the Lebanese team at the end of the first quarter. Their shooting accuracy never really improved, ending the game with an overall shooting percentage of 28%.
However it was their work on the glass and on the defensive side of the ball that kept them in the game. Guard Reuben Te Rangi, who scored the final two points of the game from the free-throw line, contributed nine rebounds. He says, "Shots don't drop in games, but defense wins games also and in that last three minutes I think we locked down and we came away with the win."
With the scores at 59-60, that defensive lock-down saw Corey Webster, his brother Tai and Shea Ili surround Lebanon's Elias Rastom, forcing a turnover which led to the Tall Blacks retaking the lead with only seconds left on the lock. Coach Paul Henare said they "just wanted to keep that defensive intensity and that defensive pressure up and that's what forced that last turnover."
While the final few minutes was intense, the clash between the two top sides of Asian Group E failed to live up to the hype in the first half.
Neither side really set the court alight with their shooting. Having both arrive in New Zealand only the day before, both sides appeared to feel the effects of more than 30 hours travelling from Lebanon. Tall Blacks captain Mika Vukona says 25 points in the first half isn't usual. "I think both teams were just wading through mud for the first half," he says.
Regardless of the travel factor, the Tall Blacks weren't surprised by the close contest. Both teams had a record of six wins, one loss in this qualifying campaign. Having beaten China on Friday, the Lebanese came with a spring in their step.
Vukona says, "we knew they were going to come out here and show a lot of passion. People here in New Zealand don't know much about Lebanon but they're up there, man, and they know how to play basketball."
Henare praised the Cedars, who for the majority had never been to New Zealand, nor traveled this far for a game. "To travel that far and to be able to compete like that was awesome, and undermanned as well, so many injuries for some of their top players. So it was a hell of a game, it was a great game for us to grind out," Henare says.
The win sees the Tall Blacks move to a 7-1 record, while Lebanon slip to 6-2. New Zealand now sit alone at the top of Asian Group E. The top 3 teams earn qualification to the world championships in China next year.
The Tall Blacks next game is on November 29 in in Christchurch against Jordan, before playing Syria on the 3rd of December in Wellington.