CANADA eked out a hard-earned 78-72 win over New Zealand in a tightly-fought semifinal encounter Saturday night to book a berth in the finals of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament here in Manila.
The Canadians outscored the Tall Blacks, 6-0, in a four minute stretch in what turned out to be the most telling run of the game.
The scoring burst allowed the 26th ranked team to peel off from a 71-71 deadlock to a 77-71 lead with 20 seconds left in the knockout match at the Mall of Asia Arena.
The Canadians will face the winner of the other semifinal pairing between favored France and Turkey for the lone berth in the Rio De Janeiro Olympics at stake here.
Corey Joseph led the Canadians with 20 points, but it was the trio of Tristan Thompson, Melvin Ejim, and Khem Birch who got the job done for the team in the endgame.
It was the three which sparked that final run of Canada. Thompson engineered it with two free throws that broke a 71-71 contest, before Ejim capped it with a completed three-point play off a foul by Thomas Abercrombie, to clinch the win and a shot at returning to the Olympics after the 2000 Sydney Games.
“Melvin is just our energy guy,” said Canada coach James Triano of the 25-year-old forward. “He’s a fierce competitor off the glass, he’s a fierce competitor on the court.”
Thompson, playing his best game of the tournament after coming off a championship stint in the NBA with Cleveland Cavaliers, finished with a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds, while Ejim added 13 and seven off the boards.
“Coach put this team together to win. We’ve travelled this far to be part of this tournament,” said Thompson. “For me, it’s competing and doing everything to win.”
New Zealand’s Olympic bid was hampered following the injury suffered by Isaac Fotu in the opening half. The 6-foot-7 energetic forward never saw action in the entire second half and finished with only three points.
Tall Blacks coach Paul Henare said Fotu complained about feeling something tweak and hearing some pop on his calf.
“To lose Isaac really changed the way we played,” Henare later said. “We’re undersized and outmatched, but we still fought our way.”
The Tall Blacks did manage to keep in step with the Canadians, and even took a 66-64 lead on a basket by Mika Vukona midway in the fourth quarter.
It was a nip-and-tuck affair from there. Thomas Abercrombie tied the game for the eighth and last time at 71-all, before Thompson and Co. pulled off six straight unanswered points to control the game for good.
The Tall Blacks wouldn’t score again until Abercrombie split his charities with 19.8 seconds for a 77-72 count.
“We’re really proud of the way we played tonight. We lost Isaac early on, but we gave ourselves a better shot of winning the game,” stressed Abercrombie, who was the second leading scorer of the team with 16 points behind the 21 of Corey Webster.
Canada (78) – Joseph 20, Thompson 13, Ejim 13, Bennett 9, Birch 6, P. Scrubb 6, T. Scrubb 5, Ennis 4, Heslip 2.
New Zealand (72) – C. Webster 21, Abercrombie 16, T. Webster 15, Vukona 6, Loe 6, Ili 5, Fotu 3, Barlett 0, Anthony 0, Ngatai 0.
Quarterscores: 23-25; 42-42; 58-54; 78-72.