The New Zealand Tall Ferns stumbled unexpectedly in their first three games of the William Jones Cup in Taiwan, falling first to Chinese Taipei B, then Japan and South Korea ahead of their Olympic qualifying series against the formidable Australian Opals next month.
The William Jones Cup, held from July 27-31, sees the Kiwis take on an A and B team from the host nation, as well as Japan, Korea, and a USA select team.
Things have not started well for the Tall Ferns, who fell 66-77 to Chinese Taipei B. They were defeated by Japan B 66-78, and suffered a further loss to Korea 56-75.
The Tall Ferns hope to build momentum as they prepare for the world number 2 ranked Opals, with a guaranteed spot in the 2016 Rio Olympics awarded to the winner of the FIBA Oceania Championships. The two-game series tips off in Melbourne on August 15, before moving to Tauranga in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty on August 17.
Loss to Chinese Taipei B unwelcome start for Tall Ferns
Losing their opening game of the warm-up tournament in Taiwan was not the start to preparations the Tall Ferns hoped for. They shot just 37 per cent from the floor against Chinese Taipei B, whose full-strength side is ranked 13 spots below them in the current FIBA world rankings. Though some of the poor shooting may be attributed to the Tall Ferns' arrival in Taiwan less than 24 hours before the game, it may still take a while for the team to gel, as four of the 12-player squad play for US colleges and three are still in their teens.
Perhaps more concerning for Coach Kennedy Kereama's team was that the Kiwis committed 19 turnovers in the 11-point loss, with young trio Penina Davidson, Samara Gallaher and Kalani Purcell accounting for 11 of the Tall Ferns' 19 turnovers.
While turnovers and poor shooting plagued the Tall Ferns throughout, they out-rebounded their smaller opponents 45-28 and were paced by 12 points from three players — Beijing Olympic veterans Micaela Cocks and Lisa Wallbutton (who added 11 rebounds), as well as the promising 19-year-old University of California forward Davidson.
19-year old California State University guard Tessa Boagni collected a rebound, steal and assist in her Tall Ferns debut as the youngest member of the squad, while fellow debutant Chevannah Paalvast hit a three-pointer en route to scoring five points in her first game as a Tall Fern.
Davidson led Tall Ferns scoring in Japan loss
In the loss to Japan, Davidson led the Tall Ferns in scoring with 14 points, centre Megan Craig (8/6 FG) contributed 13 points, 5 rebounds and 4 blocks and Chevannah Paalvast added 11 points. Despite dominating the rebound count 40-18 and heading to the charity stripe 34 times, Japan proved too quick and shot the ball at a far better clip to earn the win. Turnovers also hurt the Tall Ferns greatly yet again; the team committed an unsightly 31 turnovers this game.
Turnovers costly in Tall Ferns' loss to Korea
Turnovers again cost the Kiwis in their third game against Korea. The Asians' speed and pressure forced the Tall Ferns into turning the ball over 32 times. New Zealand used their size advantage to dominate in the paint, but this proved to be insufficient. Purcell managed to produce a 10 point and 11 rebound double-double to be the pick of the Tall Ferns, in what became another disappointing loss.
Standing a staggering 6'8, 22-year-old center Megan Craig is the tallest of all the Tall Ferns. Craig, who is a cousin of rising New Zealand Tall Blacks teen Tai Wynyard grabbed five rebounds in just five minutes of court time in their first game against Chinese Taipei B.
Craig was set to match up against Australia's Liz Cambage at the Oceania Series next month, however Cambage, who also stands 6'8, was dropped from the Opals team for missing a training session to attend the Splendour in the Grass music festival.
Though she's still just 22, Craig is clear when it comes to her focus, saying making the 2016 Rio Olympics is an obvious goal.
"I think from the youngest age of 12 I was like 'I want to go to the Olympics'," she said.
"I want to be on that grand stage.”
Even without Cambage's size and skill in the paint, the Australians still boast a wealth of talent and experience. However, Cambage being dropped from the Oceania Series — for turning her focus to a stage of a different kind — may give the Tall Ferns confidence.
If the Tall Ferns can make progress during their remaining games in Taiwan, a strong showing against Japan in their three-game series on home soil from August 5-9 could build momentum as they prepare for the Opals.
The stage, as they say, is set.
Tall Ferns selected for Taiwan
Micaela Cocks, Townsville Fire (AUS) 29yrs
Jordan Hunter, Auckland Counties Manukau Lady Hawks (NZ) 24yrs
Stella Beck, Saint Mary's College of California (USA) 19yrs
Samara Gallaher, Hume City Broncos (AUS) / Oceana Gold Rush Otago (NZ) 22yrs
Natalie Taylor, Gladstone Power (AUS) 32yrs
Kalani Purcell, Brigham Young University (USA) / Auckland Counties Manukau Lady Hawks (NZ) 20yrs
Chevannah Paalvast, Southern Peninsular Sharks (AUS) 23yrs
Lisa Wallbutton, Willeton Tigers (AUS) 29yrs
Jess Bygate, Gladstone Power (AUS) / Nelson Sparks (NZ) 23yrs
Megan Craig, Lakeside Lightning (AUS) 22yrs
Penina Davidson, University of California (USA) / Harbour Breeze (NZ) 19yrs
Tessa Boagni, California State University (USA) 19yrs
Tall Ferns Schedule
William Jones Cup, Taiwan
27 July vs Chinese Taipei B, 5pm local time
28 July vs Japan, 3pm local time
29 July vs South Korea, 3pm local time
30 July vs Chinese Taipei A, 7pm local time
31 July vs USA Select, 3pm local time
Japan Series, New Zealand
5 August vs Japan, Cowles Stadium, Christchurch, tip-off 11am local time
7 August vs Japan, Cowles Stadium, Christchurch, tip-off 7pm local time
9 August vs Japan, EA Stadium, Ashburton, tip-off 2pm local time
FIBA Oceania Championships
15 August vs Australia, Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne
17 August vs Australia, ASB Arena, Tauranga
*Credit to Brodie Stephens for assisting with research and initial writeup.