New-look Tall Ferns shine light on a bright future

The Tall Ferns win the silver medal at the 2019 William Jones Cup. Photo courtesy of Basketball New Zealand

A busy month of July is a regular routine for the Tall Ferns. For a number of women on the roster, they start by finishing the Women’s Basketball Championship (WBC), where often times they play one another on opposing teams. But once the WBC uniforms are hung up, those select women exchange their respective singlets for New Zealand’s black and white uniforms, with a week to prepare for a two-and-a-half week trip to Asia.

The annual Asia tour makes two stops: one in Atsugi, Japan and then in New Taipei, Taiwan for the William Jones Cup. The schedule is rigorous but it has propelled the New Zealand-based team to winning results. They won the 2018 William Jones Cup title and took silver just this past weekend after an epic performance by Japan that beat them 95–63.

The long-standing New Zealand basketball fan would know names like Natalie (Purcell) Taylor and Jillian Harmon as marquee players that have propelled the Tall Ferns in the past. But infusing new talent into the mix is a vital part of creating a successful program, too. Head coach Guy Molloy took a unique approach for the 2019 season when he added what was then five (soon six) debutantes in Ella Fotu, Matangiora “Pep” Flavell, Mary Goulding, Esra McGoldrick, Amy West, and Zoe Richards. Having them alongside veteran players Micaela Cocks and Toni Farnworth, in addition to the next group of leaders in Penina Davidson and Kalani Purcell, was aimed to increase competition within the international basketball scene.

Rookies looking on during the William Jones Cup. Photo courtesy of Basketball New Zealand

Striving for better competition inspired Molloy and his coaching staff to present a set of new goals as the Tall Ferns prepare to head into the Olympic Qualification process. Of course, defending their William Jones Cup title was a priority but so was to preview what some the young players could be looking at in the future.

“The tour has been very worthwhile and whilst we didn’t get the result we were looking for today, overall we have made plenty of steps forward,” Molloy told Basketball New Zealand.

Worthwhile it was. The preparation camp in Atsugi proved extremely valuable as the team had some rust-busting moments in closed scrimmages against local Japanese teams. The rookies all played heavy minutes in the first game while continuing to learn from the veterans. They came close again, losing at the buzzer to Japan, who are ranked #10 globally by FIBA. However, the departures of Toni Farnworth and Chevannah Paalvast, both of whom had to leave after camp to return to Australian commitments, left the reminaing roster an even split of veterans and rookies.

The Tall Ferns pre-game. Photo courtesy of Basketball New Zealand

When all was said and done, the long hours in the gym led them to the final of the William Jones Cup for the second straight year. While Japan put on a lights-out shooting night and beat them 95–63 in the final, there’s no denying that there’s a bright future ahead for this group as they look toward the FIBA Asia Cup in September.

Regardless of the outcome on the court, there’s a lot of promise for this team down the road. Here are my reasons why:

Again, Molloy emphasized this when the roster was officially announced in May. More specifically, he talked about the perspective of selecting a healthy mix of veteran and debutante players. He called this “an intentional strategy to build depth, increase competition for positions, and satisfy the increasing demands of FIBA for international basketball competition.”

In search of this, Molloy attended the WBC opening tournament in Christchurch back in May. He obviously saw a lot of talent, as a number of Tall Ferns competed in the 2019 WBC season including Tessa Boagni (Canterbury Wildcats), Kalani Purcell (Auckland Dream), Charlisse Leger-Walker (Waikato Wizards), Penina Davidson (Harbour Breeze), Zoe Richards (AM I FIT Otago Gold Rush), Matanigiroa Flavell (Harbour Breeze), Ella Fotu (Harbour Breeze), Esra McGoldrick (McAlpines M10 Mega North Canterbury Spirit), and Amy West (McAlpines M10 Mega North Canterbury Spirit).

The eight days spent in Atsugi gave Molloy, along with assistant coaches Jody Cameron and Aik Ho, a base for what the team needed to work on moving forward. Defense was one thing that was noted by Molloy that they need to improve on as they look to qualify for Tokyo.

Said Molloy: “One of the goals is to really focus on and improve our defense as we head towards the big FIBA qualification events later in the year.”

The rookies also noticed a change in pace of the game and advancement in skill levels from some of the best players in the world.

“The level of performance is so much higher. You really have to be on the ball all the time as the margin of error is so small. There really is no time to mess up,” Goulding said in an article for Basketball New Zealand.

Harbour’s Matangiroa Flavell noted a similar sentiment in the same article.

We are all still so young, I feel like just learning from the greatest players in our country and just using this opportunity to gain experience to hopefully get a lot better is fantastic. So this is just one step to getting better, playing well in the future and performing at our peak.”

There’s a lot of room for opportunity and while this team is off to a good start, they know there’s more to improve upon.

Had to throw this one in there because she is a special player who continues to play well year-after-year. Cocks was named to the William Jones Cup tournament team, leading New Zealand with 17.2 points per game and nine three point baskets made. The 33-year old is a veteran leader for the team that they can look to as they try and qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Purcell doesn’t need much of an introduction for New Zealand followers. The 2019 WBC MVP has been a productive machine for the Tall Ferns, leading the team with 5.4 assists, 8 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game. She’s a key to New Zealand’s success as they start to identify emerging leaders.

If anything, this Tall Ferns team has proved that age doesn’t limit an ability to learn or play the game at a high level. They will be back on the floor for the FIBA Asia Cup on September 24–29 at Sree Kanteerava Indoor Stadium in Bengaluru, India.

Sports Business gal telling 100% pure NZ athlete stories. PhD candidate, Auckland University of Technology. Twitter: @lindenmoore22, Instagram: @Nz_nbl_girl