Starring was Cook Islander and captain Reuben Te Rangi, who leads a youthful side that wasn’t expected to produce much as coach Paul Henare rested his senior players to build depth and competition around the national team.
In essence Henare has put the hoops education of his young group, average age 23, including five international debutants, on fast forward. They are clearly quick learners, as evidenced by a result over Lebanon that few would have seen coming.
The young Tall Blacks got their noses in front (42-40) by halftime, extended out by as many as nine in the third quarter and held firm as the Lebanon side got back on terms in the final period.
But down the stretch it was the youngsters from New Zealand who made the crunch plays, with Te Rangi at the forefront with a big three-pointer late, and then a crucial steal that led to Finn Delany’s game-clinching layup.
“This ranks right up there,” said coach Henare of the biggest upset of the tournament so far. “To see them grow and mature and play in an environment like that is right up there for me, I am so happy for the boys and they deserve all the plaudits that come their way.”
Te Rangi will surely have a future in the Tall Blacks even when the big guns return, thanks to his significant individual contributions.
He scored 15 points, grabbed eight rebounds as well as three assists, and was a rock when his team needed it most down the stretch.
“Reuben’s growth over the past 12-18 months has been superb, and he led his team tremendously well,” said Henare. “He battled all night, defended Lebanon’s best player and he worked on every single possession.
“He was huddling his team, he was leading his team and for a 22-year-old to do that, I just told him I was proud of the growth he has made.”
The Tall Blacks meet the unbeaten South Koreans (2-0) next in what shapes as the pool decider, with Henare keen to quickly shift the focus.
“Part of the message in the locker-room was to enjoy the moment, but in less than 48 hours we play a very good Korean team. They shoot the ball well and they spread the floor. They are not as imposing as Lebanon, but a real challenge. I’m looking forward to seeing how this group reacts.”
Tall Blacks 86 (Shea Ili 22, Reuben Te Rangi 15, Tohi Smith-Milner 15, Sam Timmins 13) Lebanon 82(Fadi El Khatib 33). 1Q: 19-23, HT: 42-40, 3Q: 67-61