Now one win away from playing in the Olympic Games, Canada Basketball men beat New Zealand 78-72 on Saturday to advance to the final of a last chance qualifier in Manila, Philippines.
At one of the three FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments taking place in Serbia, Italy and the Philippines – where Canada landed – it has been a series of close encounters for the Canadian squad hoping to match the Olympic qualification feat achieved by the women’s basketball team.
After winning group stage matches over Turkey 77-69 and Senegal 58-55 at the Mall of Asia Arena earlier in the week, New Zealand – whose team is affectionately called the Tall Blacks to mimic the All Blacks name made famous by the country’s powerful rugby team – stood in Canada’s way in the semifinals.
The Kiwis had come form the other group where they gave a scare to world power France and beat the Philippines in order to advance to the knockout stage.
A physical team that can shoot and rebound, New Zealand provided a stern test to Canada and simply refused to be impressed by the NBA names on head coach and Canadian Olympian Jay Triano’s roster.
That the game wouldn’t be easy for Canada was evident from the first frame when Shea Ili ended the quarter with a layup that gave New Zealand a 25-23 lead ahead of the second quarter.
Tied 42-42 at the half, Canada created some space on the scoreboard in the third quarter with key plays by Cory Joseph, before New Zealand came back and went ahead 66-64 halfway through the fourth.
That’s when a couple of timely buckets from Melvin Ejim and Tristan Thompson, who put their bodies on the line in the opposition paint, put Canada back on top. Ejim tied the game 66-66, then Thompson got two and put away the foul to give Canada a 69-66 lead.
Each time Canada went up, New Zealand (which has no NBA players, demonstrating the global reach and evolution of quality in basketball) fired right back and the teams were tied again 71-71 with just over three minutes left in the game.
Two huge free throws from Thompson shortly after the last New Zealand rush put Canada up once more, a lead that wouldn’t be relinquished, helped by a gutsy putback and a single from Ejim with 20 seconds to go.
Tremendous production from the three-point line kept New Zealand in the game, including a dagger from Thomas Abercrombie early in the fourth, his third and the 10th of 11 from downtown by the Kiwis. Canada by comparison made just four three-pointers from 20 attempts.
While Canada had more rebounds (47-42) and were better on the offensive glass (18-14) overall in the game, New Zealand persevered, coming away with the ball from missed shots in late stages, including one from Mika Vukona with 58 seconds left and his team only down by three and hot from the outside.
Canada though, held its ground and was led by Joseph on the offensive side with 23 points and four assists. The Toronto Raptors guard shot 45% from the field and made all four of his free throws.
Thompson hit four of his five shots from the field and had a double, scoring 13 and picking up 10 rebounds, five of which were in the New Zealand zone.
Ejim also dropped 13 for Canada, and Anthony Bennett scored his tournament high nine points to go with five rebounds.
Canada will play either France in the final of the FIBA qualifier on Sunday (8:55 a.m. ET on TSN 2), with the winner going to Rio 2016.
France had beaten New Zealand 66-59 in the group stage, although it wasn’t easy, trailing the Kiwis by 10 after three quarters before outscoring them 28-11 in the fourth.
Canada has been in this position before, losing to Venezuela at the FIBA Americas last year, where a win would have put the men in the Olympics. On Sunday, the Canadians will have a chance at redemption.