Teenager Tai Webster couldn’t have timed his meteoric rise to the Tall Blacks any better, emerging as their leading scorer for the second time in two days as they lost 69-99 to Greece at San Carlos, Brazil.
Webster (17) was initially a surprise selection for the NZ national men’s team, taking his opportunity with Kirk Penney and Tom Abercrombie both injured, older brother Corey still serving a drug suspension, and point guards Mark Dickel and Mike Fitchett unavailable from last year's roster.
On debut, he was one of the few bright spots to emerge from yesterday’s 49-73 loss to Brazil and Webster went even better in his second outing, promoted to the starting line-up and pouring in 18 points to lead all scorers as the Kiwis put up an improved effort against the world’s fourth-ranked team.
“Tai has got a massive future ahead of him,” said captain Mika Vukona. “I really didn’t know what to expect from him when he first came into the team, but his composure for such a young kid in this role is great to see, especially with New Zealand’s stocks in the point guard position very low
“It’s an awesome surprise and he’s only going to get better. Tai’s doing a great job for a young kid, telling everyone what to do and showing the leadership you really want from a point guard.”
The bad news – Webster had to replace veteran point guard Lindsay Tait, who was laid low with a stomach bug and is also doubtful for tomorrow’s game against Nigeria.
After the Greeks started the game with a 13-2 outburst, Webster inspired his team to a 12-2 run of their own that brought them to within a point midway through the opening quarter.
But playing great team basketball, their rivals responded with another 18-4 run that carried them well clear for good, dishing out 10 assists by the end of the first period. The margin stretched to 38 points late in the fourth period, but as they did yesterday, New Zealand closed with a rush to reduce the final deficit.
“Greece always put together a great team,” said captain Mika Vukona. “They’re a well-drilled team that plays pretty much perfect basketball.
“When they shoot 64% from the two-point area and just as well from three-point … it’s always tough to beat a Greek team on fire.”
They weren’t quite that efficient, but not far off it at 62% and 40% respectively. While the final margin was bigger than the previous performance against the hosts, Greece – runners-up to the United States at the 2006 FIBA World Championship – also represent another level up from Brazil.
Webster’s points haul included three three-pointers, but his was not the only individual performance that stood out among the Kiwis. Vukona, himself, had a pair of treys in 15 points as he continued to get accustomed to the small forward position, while centre Alex Pledger produced a double double of 13 points/10 rebounds that included six offensive boards.
“This is a different position for me,” he said. “It’s something I have to get adjusted to pretty quick to learn where the shots will come. I’ve got to be confident so the others out on court can see.”
Rookie Everard Bartlett also connected three times from the arc and, as a team, the Tall Blacks out-rebounded their opponents 39-27, including 16-4 offensively. They also had the satisfaction of outscoring their rivals 24-20 in the final quarter.
But they also turned the ball over 20 times and shot just 36% from the field.
Tomorrow (10am NZ), they have a chance for victory against the Africans, who were routed 104-65 by Brazil in tonight’s late fixture. Ultimately, the Tall Blacks are using each game to prepare for next week’s FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament at Caracas, Venezuela, where the top three teams will secure the final spots available in the draw at London.
“To get a win going into the tournament would be great, but it’s not the be-all,” said Vukona. “Our eyes are firmly on next week, and we need to work on getting our offence and defence right.
“Hopefully, if we can do that, it will hold us in good stead in our opening game against Macedonia.”
Greece 99 (Printezis 17, Bourousis 13, Fotsis 12, Papanikolaou 10) New Zealand 69 (Tai Webster 18, Mika Vukona 15, Alex Pledger 13, Everard Bartlett 11, Jarrod Kenny 4, Jeremiah Trueman 4, Rob Loe 2, Leon Henry 2)
HT 55-30 (22-12)
Q3 79-45 (24-15)
FT 99-69 (20-24)