The Australian Boomers opened their three-game Oceanic Qualification series against the New Zealand Tall Blacks last night at the Cage in Melbourne. The winner of this series qualifies for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, so the stakes are as high as the talent level on display. With a capacity crowd in attendance, Game One was going to be huge.
New Zealand started well as Kirk Penney and Mika Vukona got the Tall Blacks off to a quick start. The Boomers looked a little sluggish on their first two possessions until Matt Nielsen found Patty Mills open in the corner with a no-look pass for the game’s first three-ball. Vukona and Newley were vying early for the “Energizer Bunny” award, as both were seemingly everywhere.
As the game settled into a rhythm, it became apparent that Australia’s size was going to play a real factor with Aleks Maric among the many Boomers rebounding at will. On the flip-side, the Tall Blacks speed and ball movement was creating some great shot opportunities for New Zealand. Kirk Penney’s range was seemingly unlimited as he hit shots from everywhere with the defense all over him. An early issue for the Boomers was foul shooting, squandering a number of opportunities to extend their early lead.
As the first quarter came to a close, the Boomers held a healthy, yet hard-fought 26-18 lead. Vukona and Penney the early difference-makers for New Zealand, while Newley, Mills and Maric had made the biggest impression early for the Boomers.
As I looked around the stadium it was a “who’s who” of Aussie basketball with a number of past and present players in attendance. Andrew Bogut, Luc Longley, Lanard Copeland, Dave Simmons, Cecil Exum, Cam Tragardh, Lucas Walker, Ayinde Ubaka, Daniel Dillon, David Stiff, Daryl McDonald, Mark Bradtke, Chris Anstey… the list went on and on. A great experience on its own just to see those guys in attendance.
As the second quarter got underway, Vukona continued his great play pounding the defensive glass and finding the open man on offense. When he wasn’t chalking up assists, he was driving to the basket and getting to the line. New Zealand big man Casey Frank took to the arc to make a couple of threes, extending the Boomers defense. This was key for the Tall Blacks as the combination of Vukona, Penney and Frank put some real scoreboard pressure on Australia.
With five minutes remaining in the quarter, New Zealand had reclaimed the lead, led by Vukona and Penney. The Boomers lifted a notch almost as soon as they lost the lead with Matt Nielsen commanding respect inside, hitting a couple of technically gorgeous jump hooks. Patty Mills also lit up the crowd, draining an NBA-range three to stretch the lead out to six. The crowd started to really get going and one got the impression a large half time lead was on the horizon for the Boomers. To the Tall Blacks’ credit, they too lifted the intensity with Vukona finding Penney out of the double team for three. Finally, with an Alex Pledger buzzer beater New Zealand closed the gap to just two points at the half and trailed 47-45 at intermission.
The second half got underway and the Boomers had one job; to shut down Kirk Penney. Easier said than done of course, as Penney’s talent was on full display throughout this game. Both teams had used 11 of their 12 players at this stage so fresh legs were the order of the night.
The first minute saw an increased defensive effort from the Boomers blocking shots and contesting everything. The Tall Blacks first score came from an unlucky broken play for the Boomers, as Mills saved the ball from going out of bounds. Although the score remained close, both teams scrapped for every ball causing a number of turnovers. AJ Ogilvy broke the pattern with a strong three-point play and the Boomers led again by four.
As if they had it on tap, Vukona again reeled the Boomers in with a line-drive three followed quickly by a Penney fade away from the foul line and again the lead had changed. The Boomers responded again however, scoring seven straight points as the game went to a new level.
With three minutes remaining the game exploded within one sequence as Maric nailed Vukona with an elbow on a defensive rebound, Penney got hammered on a back pick by Mark Worthington and then it was all-in after Maric was fouled on the baseline by Mark Dickel. Vukona had come back down the floor to remonstrate with Maric as Aussie coach Brett Brown sprung out of his seat and onto the court to separate players. On the following play Thomas Abercrombie missed a wide open three only to see Worthington trail the following transition play to hit a big momentum shifting three to stretch the Boomer lead to 10. Time out New Zealand.
The physicality jumped to another level as Worthington and Frank got into a heated exchange at half court following an offensive foul. Worhtington then went on to sucker Frank into another foul on the followng play, proving once and for all that “old man tricks” are still valid in Basketball. It was at this point that New Zealand started to unravel.
The third quarter wrapped up with the Boomers taking a 73-58 lead on the game scoreboard and a 1-0 lead on the “mental scoreboard”.
As the final period began the Boomers hit hard with two trips inside to Aron Baynes followed by a Matt Dellavedova triple, stretching the lead to 20. The Tall Blacks called timeout and seemed to have lost a lot of momentum as a result of the previous scuffle.
The game then started to get out of control as Dickel fouled Dellavedova hard on a loose ball play, which resulted in a second scuffle. Boomers Captain Matt Nielsen then crash-tackled Dickel to the floor, putting him in a short-lived headlock. Vukona flew into the pack and once again Brett Brown did his best Jeff Van Gundy impersonation, pleading for calm.
As the dust settled, the Boomers still had a 20 point lead and the Tall Blacks now looked defeated. Dickel was eventually ejected for his second unsportsmanlike foul during the scuffle and the Cage crowd gave him a “warm” send off. Worthington scored again inside, continuing to leave his fingerprints all over this game, and then out of nowhere…
BRAD NEWLEY HAPPENED.
Off his own missed three-point attempt, Newley flew to the basket to slam home his own miss, and in two plays time climbed the ladder again to send Abercrombie’s transition layup into the car park. Truly two of the most athletic plays you’ll see in Basketball, or any sport for that matter.
The final minutes of the game played out without further incident. Both teams were seemingly leaving a little in the tank for the next two games with the result no longer in doubt. The Boomers finished off the job and took Game One 91-78. Patty Mills was named the game MVP collecting a team-high 20 points.
The Boomers were given a real scare by the Tall Blacks as the ball movement and shooting accuracy of the New Zealanders troubled Australia early. Adjustments were made to contain Kirk Penney in the second half but there were some significant chinks in the Boomers armor. These will be on the mind of Brett Brown as he prepares his troops for Game Two on Friday night in Brisbane.
New Zealand can definitely take some positives out of this game having caused the Boomers some real trouble early on. The scoring prowess of Penney combined with the all-around hustle of Mika Vukona will always keep them in a game. The x-factor for the Tall Blacks however is Thomas Abercrombie who really didn’t get into his groove in Game One. New Zealand will be looking for more out of him on the offensive end come Friday night. In the post-game press conference Kirk Penney seemed aware of Abercrombie’s quiet night saying “we have to play better defense to give him opportunities… it [goes for] all of us“.
Brett Brown was just as forthcoming as always when questioned by the media. He spoke of the youth the Boomers have and described the current squad as an “exciting generation” and “a great group to grow with“. Patty Mills spoke softly into the microphones, seemingly bashful following his performance. “It’s good to get the first one” said Mills, “but close-out games are the hardest“.
Something definitely tells me that the New Zealand Tall Blacks will come out firing when Game Two tips off on Friday night in Brisbane.
All in all, a sensational night of hoops in Melbourne and hopefully a prelude to a great series.
Thanks for reading.
Paul Henderson is on Twitter @HD_Paul
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