third test. China falls to New Zealand
Third Test (Qinhuangdao): Burger King Tall Blacks 100 China 85
Just hours after inspecting the impressive man-made structure at its coastal starting point, the Burger King Tall Blacks gave their hosts a taste of what their ancestors must have experienced from the Mongol hordes back in the day, scoring their first ever victory over the Asian champions 100-85 at Qinhuangdao.
After dropping the two tests within two days of arriving in China, the Kiwis used a timely rest day to regroup and plot the downfall of a home team that had largely dictated the fate of the three-match series through their massive height advantage.
If they had suffered from the tough travel itinerary (and they never used that as an excuse) the Tall Blacks were back to their feisty best, offensively, defensively, mentally and physically.
Defensively, the Tall Blacks had been largely satisfied to play behind Chinese gargantuans Yao Ming and Mengke Bateer through games one and two with limited success in wrestling them under the basket. This time, coach Tab Baldwin demanded a more aggressive effort from big men Pero Cameron, Ed Book and Robert Hickey in fronting the giants to deny them the ball.
It largely worked. Yao still got 29 points to lead all scoring, 11 from the free throw line and only seven in the second half.
But Mengke totaled just five points for the match.
At the same time, the guardline was able to create havoc by trapping in the corners where the Chinese sharpshooters had been so successful in game two.
"Our guards controlled the tempo and our bigs did a pretty huge job on their bigs," summed up Baldwin later.
"It was a matter of getting our system down and making it work. We have two defensive systems and one is very high energy.
"I never envisaged playing it for a whole game, but we did tonight."
When this tour (the first competitive element of the Tall Blacks' world championship preparation) began, Baldwin told his players he would measure their effort in terms of three statistical categories. Turnovers, offensive rebounds and free throw percentage.
Last night, they got that mix spot on.
The Tall Blacks' pressure forced the Chinese into 26 turnovers, while committing only 10 themselves. Despite their height handicap, they cleaned the offensive glass by a margin of 19-8 through sheer commitment and shot 76% from the line as their opponents (74%) completely lost their poise there in the second half (55%).
"At halftime, I asked the guys if they wanted a pat on the back," said Baldwin. "But they didn't want any plaudits for a first-half performance.
"Those particular categories were the reason we had the lead. It wasn't that we were shooting the lights out, we just out-worked them."
Another telling indicator of the turnaround was the tip-off at the start of each quarter. In the first jump-off of the series, Hickey was barely able to tap Yao's elbow, let alone beat him to the ball. This time, Book controlled all four tips against both Mengke and Yao, but was whistled for a soft violation on the fourth as calls became hard to come by from the hometown refs.
The Kiwis had 10 of their offensive rebounds in the very first quarter to secure a 33-26 lead. The Chinese scored first and held an early 6-2 advantage, but lost the outright lead for good as the visitors scored eight straight points.
The home team began chipping away at that margin in the second quarter by using both their big guns at once, a tactic they had used surprisingly little throughout the series. But every time they scored, the Tall Blacks responded with interest. Cameron, Terrence Lewis and Paul Henare all hit three-pointers, while Book and Phill Jones had two each.
Jones had been muted during Saturday's second test and through the first quarter of this one, but erupted for 11 points in the second quarter period to carry his side to a 63-51 halftime lead.
The third quarter was an ugly deadlock, marred by Cameron's exit through injury. The calf muscle that had niggled throughout the tour finally screamed its final protest and the captain hobbled to the sideline for good with his side nine ahead.
To their credit, his team-mates never flinched, running the margin out to 20 points in the final quarter and driving many of the partisan 5000-strong crowd out of the stadium early.
"The boys are very excited and happy to head back to New Zealand, not as series winners but at least with some success and enjoyment from their visit to China," said Baldwin.
"It was a huge effort and I'm proud to be part of this team. They say you're only as good as your last game. In our last game, we were winners."
Burger King Tall Blacks 100 (Ed Book 20, Phill Jones 17, Terrence Lewis 14, Pero Cameron 12, Paul Henare 11)
China 85 (Yao Ming 29, Zhang Cheng 10)