Australia’s men’s basketball team have the chance to break their Olympic medal duck in Rio next year after beating New Zealand by 10 points to win their qualifying series.
Having claimed game one by 12 points in Melbourne on Saturday, the Boomers wrapped up the Oceania Championships with a 89-79 second-leg victory on Tuesday in Wellington.
NBA title winner Andrew Bogut – despite only arriving barely 20 hours earlier, after staying on home soil to get treatment on his back – proved influential at both ends of the court.
He finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds in his 20 minutes, but it was NBA finals cult hero Matthew Dellavedova who top-scored with 14 points and five assists.
Cameron Bairstow had 10 points and seven rebounds, while unsung hero David Andersen added 11.
Australia join hosts Brazil and the world No.1 USA as the first nations to qualify directly for Rio.
It will mark their 12th straight Games appearance since 1972.
The Boomers are yet to win a medal at an Olympics, having finished fourth three times.
But with a record number of Australians playing minutes in the NBA, 2016 could be the year they end that drought.
Three of those four stars in the current squad started Tuesday’s game, with Bogut, Dellavedova and Bairstow joining Chris Goulding and Ryan Broekhoff.
The two sides went shot-for-shot early on, before Dellavedova laid on some quick points to give the visitors the lead.
A few missed baskets helped them hold onto the lead, going into quarter-time, 21-14.
The Tall Blacks scrapped hard in the second term, with Corey Webster and Isaac Fotu stepping it up for the 4015 home fans with a few entertaining shots.
The Australians couldn’t extend their seven-point advantage at the main break, which ended 40-33.
But they went on to dominate the third quarter – outscoring their trans-Tasman rivals 26-20.
Having vowed to better shut down Webster after his 22-point effort in game one, the Boomers did just that – restricting the star guard’s pointscoring.
A late charge in the fourth quarter had the vocal crowd on their feet and pulled them to within five points, but it wasn’t enough to avoid defeat.
The Tall Blacks will get a second crack at qualifying via a repechage tournament involving 12 teams in July next year. The top four will advance to Rio.
Boomers coach Andrej Lemanis said Bogut’s performance couldn’t be overstated.
“Now’s the time to make it known publicly just what a significant effort that was from Andrew Bogut to overcome that pain,” he said.
“He could’ve easily said ‘look, (my back) is just too sore – I’m not going to play’, but it meant something for him to be part of the Boomers’ program.
“He’s been with this group from the start and he committed to the program – just as all the guys did.
“And after an NBA championship year – and Delly played through the championship series – it would’ve been easy for both those guys just to say ‘Nah, we’ve had a big year and I’ll take this off-season to have time to myself’.”
Bogut proved an inspiration for his NBA finals nemesis Dellavedova.
“It definitely fires up the boys because he’s putting his body on the line,” he said.
“Especially early on, getting a few buckets and blocks and to start the second half the way he did, gave us an emotional boost.”
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ point guard said booking a ticket to the Olympics was very exciting, but not something they took for granted.
“It was a tough, physical two games and we had to prepare well to get the wins,” he said.
“New Zealand is never going to say die and made a great comeback at the end.”