Tall Blacks 93
There's still work to be done, but the Tall Blacks are alive – and definitely dangerous - at the Basketball World Cup.
A 93-83 victory over Montenegro has kept New Zealand in with a chance of advancing to the second round for the fifth consecutive World Cup, but they require one more win - against a more fearsome foe.
The impressive win puts the Tall Blacks at 1-1 in Group F, with a +2 points differential after their opening 102-94 loss to Brazil, and their toughest test still to come, against Greece on Thursday night.
Brazil's 79-78 upset victory over Greece has made the Tall Blacks' equation simple though - beat Greece, and they move into the second round. Lose, and they don't.
Yes, it remains a tough challenge, but it's at least still in the realm of possibility after grinding down a Montenegrin side who lost their cool, their lead, and eventually the game.
For a while, it looked as if the Tall Blacks had run into a repeat of their third quarter issues against Brazil. A nine-point halftime lead was cut to just one with a quarter to go, as the speed and fluency which had gifted the Tall Blacks their lead was bogged down amongst foul trouble and subsequently ill-advised lineups.
The first half had seen an offensive clinic, with Corey Webster leading the way with multiple triples, and Shea Ili providing his usual spark. The defence was less stellar against a side who scored just 16 first-half points against Greece, but with a judicious use of a press, and some sloppy discipline from Montenegro, they built a 53-44 lead at the break.
Perhaps their hot start was slightly unsustainable, as shots started to miss and the speed which had troubled their opponents started to flag. With Ili benched with four fouls and Rob Loe with three, their replacements had less success, and Montenegro's sole NBA star, Nikola Vucevic, started to shine.
After scoring just 13 points in the third quarter, the Tall Blacks saw their lead vanish early in the fourth, but coach Paul Henare had settled on the players that would win his side the game. Henare made just three substitutes in the final period, with Webster, Loe and Tom Abercrombie playing the entire fourth quarter, and Webster's hot shooting regaining the lead they had fought so hard for.
Webster had another superb offensive showing, finishing with 25 points, six rebounds and seven assists, and after copping an accidental elbow to the face, Isaac Fotu came back to torment the Montenegrin frontcourt, finishing with 20 points and seven rebounds.
Montenegro lost their temper as technical fouls started to mount – their coach had already been ejected from the game for his backchat – and with Vucevic bizarrely benched, the Tall Blacks shot their way to an unassailable lead.
It will be tougher against Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Greek side. For now, though, the Tall Blacks can reflect on a mission accomplished.