It was win or go home for Finland and New Zealand in Bilbao as the Tall Blacks took on the Susijengi on the final day of group play in the FIBA Basketball World Cup. A remarkable comeback saw Finland come back from 20 points down in the third quarter to nearly steal it at the death but the Tall Blacks did just enough to survive, writes Emmet Ryan.
Finland, like Ukraine and USA before them, stood in respect of the Haka and, for the first time in this tournament, a group of Tall Blacks fans in the stand joined in with their countrymen. Not many have made the trip halfway round the world to Spain and they wanted to go to Barcelona for more than just a holiday.
The mood was relaxed right up until the opening tip when apprehension filled the BEC. Gerald Lee’s opening score seemed to settle both sides as New Zealand and Finland trade punches evenly through the first few minutes. The Tall Blcks were working the inside to good effect and opened up the first lead of consequence through Isaac Fotu and Thomas Abercrombie to move 13-8 ahead. Finland’s shooting was off through the frame and the nerves showed as an attempted three by Kimmo Muurinen went wildly off target to hit the top of the back board. Petteri Koponen, a Finn whose game hasn’t let up throughout this tournament ended a 5 minute scoring drought for the Susijengi. New Zealand looked like they were playing with house money, Fotu calmly drained a three anda pair of Corey Webster free throws saw them take an 18-12 lead into the second.
The Tall Blacks came out buzzing on defence topstart the second. Lindsay Tait looked leisurely pushing the Tall Blacks further our, first with a jumper and than with a casual lay-up. Fotu however was all intensity as the Hawaii Warrior racked up 12 points and 4 boards in the first half. A Cory Webster three moved New Zealand 13 points clear as Finland continued to struggle. While far from a basketball powerhouse, the Tall Blacks looked like a team that had been here before and wasn’t letting the occasion get to them. It’s easier to show such confidence when you can turn to the likes of Abercrombie and Everard Bartlett for a three. At the half the Tall Blacks held a 44-32 advantage.
The boards once again were Finland’s undoing. Having been trounced in the rebounding game by Dominican Republic and Turkey in their previous two games, they were once again torn apart on the glass. Early in the third the Tall Blacks held a 21-11 advantage and their lead grew to 20 points. While the Susijengi dream was dying, Nenad Vucinic’s decision to get everyone quality minutes against the USA on Tuesday was paying off. The Tall Blacks were the freshest team on court on Wednesday, despite being 0-3, and once again looked in fine shape as they wore the Finns down. Defensively the Finns found some life but they still had a mountain to climb going into the fourth. The crowd, still large in number, was the quietest it had been all week. With 10 minutes to go and trailing 57-45, they knew their World Cup was coming to a close.
The Finns found hope in the final quarter. Within a minute they had cut the gap to 8 and now, the crowd was in it. Sasu Salin eventually finished off Finland’s next possession and suddenly there was just 6 points between them. Kirk Penney however stepped up with a three to finally get New Zealand on the board in the fourth. The Tall Blacks survived a similar stutter against Ukraine but they were heavily dependent on Finland’s scoring struggles here. A three minute scoring drought for both sides was ended by a Shawn Huff three and the Tall Blacks’ advantage was down to 4.
It was only their second three of the game but with 90 seconds top go it was a one possession game thanks to a Petteri Koponen making their third from deep. The Tall Blacks were reeling. Free throws from Sasu Salin cut it to 1. With 17.7 Finland had possession, Koponen stalked the arc and moved in for the lay-up. He missed, Vukona made the rebound but the Finns had one more shot on the buzzer. Koponen’s effort fell short and New Zealand survived.[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/166209085″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /]
For the Tall Blacks this has been a remarkable turnaround. They threw away an unlikely victory over Turkey on the first day, looked exhausted in defeat to Dominican Republic, and fell to 0-3 after the USA game. Their dominance on the glass over both Ukraine and Finland was crucial to their survival in this World Cup and they delivered big despite their collapse through the game’s final 15 minutes.
Finland’s fans made this city aware of what the World Cup was about and they experienced a massive high with that victory over Ukraine but their naivety against Dominican Republic and failure to close out Turkey cost them in the end. It also cost Ukraine who, barring an upset of the century over the USA, are eliminated on tie-breakers.
Leave a Reply