Tall Blacks qualify top of group

For once, the Tall Blacks won't be distraught by a last-second defeat.

In a fascinating display of strategy, the Tall Blacks have qualified atop their group at the Asia Cup, despite a 76-75 defeat to South Korea this morning.

Due to the curious incentives of the pool play set-up, the Tall Blacks merely needed to lose by less than two points to book a spot in the quarterfinals, leaving head coach Paul Henare with plenty of strategising to do when the tight game entered the final minutes.

The fact the game was close was notable in itself, considering the Tall Blacks were in a 41-26 hole with halftime nearing. However, a Finn Delany-inspired third quarter comeback brought the Tall Blacks back, leaving the game in both the hands of the players, and the minds of the coaches.

With 24 seconds remaining, South Korea had the ball with the score tied at 75. Knowing that a three-point loss would knock the Tall Blacks off the top of the group - and that overtime would be best avoided - Henare ordered his troops to intentionally foul.

South Korea hit one of two at the line, leaving a very clear incentive structure for the Tall Blacks.

"Make sure this is the last shot," came the call from the Tall Blacks timeout - hopeful of a last-second victory, but knowing that maintaining the one-point defeat was enough to book a quarterfinal spot.

With South Korea perhaps unaware of their circumstances, or happy to bank the win, they let Shea Ili run out the clock before his attempted buzzer-beater fell short, giving South Korea the win, but securing the quarterfinal spot for the Tall Blacks.

While naturally disappointed with the loss, those final seconds - and the earlier comeback - could be crucial for the Tall Blacks. They now await the winner of a preliminary playoff game - likely to be either Jordan or Iraq - in the quarterfinal, instead of having to play an extra sudden-death game against a potent Japanese side.

For a long time, their quarterfinal prospects looked unlikely, with South Korea looking like a dominant force as they shot out to a significant halftime advantage.

A skilled offensive unit, South Korea moved the ball expertly, utilising their multi-positional cast of shooters to create quality looks. On the other end, their sporadic use of a zone exploited the Tall Blacks' lack of three-point shooting to take a sizeable lead.

The Tall Blacks' offensive struggles were spreading, hitting just one three and earning just three free throws in the first half, all the while looking a far cry from the aggressive side which so impressively overcame Lebanon.

Facing an 11-point halftime deficit and suffering from foul trouble, they needed a spark, and found it in Delany.

Celebrating his 22nd birthday, Delany kick-started a pivotal 27-12 third quarter, knocking down some shots in small-ball lineups on his way to a team-high 14 points and eight rebounds.

He had some help from Sam Timmins (12 points, six rebounds) and bench livewire Derone Raukawa (14 points, five rebounds and three assists), as the Tall Blacks came charging back to regain the lead late in the third quarter.

From there, it was back and forth right until the dying stages; where Korea won the battle, but the Tall Blacks won the war.

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