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Tall Blacks top Croatia at Paris qualifier


The Tall Blacks have given their chances of playing at the Paris Olympics a boost with a comeback victory over Croatia.


The Tall Blacks held Croatia scoreless for the game's final three minutes, coming from seven down in the fourth quarter to win 90-86 at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Piraeus, Greece on Wednesday (Thursday NZ Time).


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Down five entering the fourth, Pero Cameron's side scored just one point (via an Izayah Le'afa free-throw) in the opening 3:41 and had just one basket (from Corey Webster) in the first seven minutes.


Thankfully, their defence was getting stops at the other end, and still only trailed by five when Webster made a layup with 3:46 remaining.


Golden State Warriors big man Dario Saric hit two free-throws to put Croatia up 86-79 with 3:21 to play, but Webster answered with a triple on the next possession to get New Zealand within four.


Two free-throws and a driving layup from Shea Ili with 1:21 left tied it up at 86-86, then Ili made the go-ahead basket with 37 seconds remaining, with Le'afa icing it with a pair of freebies with 15 seconds on the clock.


Tall Blacks FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament
The Tall Blacks hit 13 triples and came from seven down in the fourth quarter to beat Croatia. PHOTO: FIBA

Webster finished with a team-high 21 points (8/14 FG, 3/6 3pt) and three assists, while back-court mate Ili had 18 points (6/9 FG, 5/7 FT) and four assists.


Fellow guard Le'afa provided 14 points (3/10 FG, 3/7 3pt, 5/6 FT) and three assists, forward Tom Vodanovich 11 points (4/7 FG, 2/5 3pt) and centre Yanni Wetzell 10 points (4/8 FG), five rebounds and two steals.


Los Angeles Clippers centre Ivica Subac posted a big double-double, with a game-high 29 points and 16 rebounds, while Saric finished with 19 points, eight boards and five assists, and Mario Hezonja 16 points, nine rebounds and six assists.



New Zealand struggled to contain Zubac and Saric inside, conceding 40 points in the paint, and were out-rebounded 43-31, including 11 offensive boards leading to 10 second-chance points.


Despite shooting a scorching 10-of-15 on three-point attempts in the first half, the Tall Blacks found themselves down five at halftime. Long-distance shooting proved the difference as New Zealand shot 43 percent (13-of-30) and Croatia just 26 percent (7-of-27).


The Tall Blacks face Slovenia, who fell to Croatia 108-92 on Tuesday, in their second Group A game on Thursday (tip-off 2.30am Friday NZT), with a win guaranteeing a place in the semifinals and a loss sending the group to a three-way tiebreaker.


Tall Blacks 90 (Corey Webster 21, Shea Ili 18, Izayah Le'afa 14, Tom Vodanovich 11, Yanni Wetzell 10) Croatia 96 (Ivica Zubac 29, Dario Saric 19, Mario Hezonja 16, Dario Dreznjak 10). 1Q: 28-29, HT: 55-60, 3Q: 74-79

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