The Tall Ferns have fallen agonisingly short of a shot at the Tokyo Olympics despite beating South Korea 69-65 in the four-nation women's basketball tournament in Auckland yesterday.
Needing to beat world No.18 South Korea by 12 points or more, the 35th-ranked New Zealanders surged out to a 12-point lead with five minutes remaining but faded in the frantic closing minutes.
The Tall Ferns had opened the tournament with a solid 111-54 win over the Philippines, but were outplayed 94-71 in Saturday's clash with world No.8 China.
The top two nations from the Auckland tournament go through to a final play-off round for 16 teams in February, with the top 12 from there qualifying for the Tokyo Games.
But because South Korea had earlier upset China 81-80, the Tall Ferns needed a big win to progress, and just couldn't maintain the necessary margin.
The Ferns were missing injured forward Ashleigh Karaitiana, but started with real intensity and rocketed out to an early 18-5 lead on the back of some outstanding defence and pinpoint shooting.
The New Zealanders maintained that margin to go into the first break with a 21-8 lead, South Korea reducing the gap to 37-28 at halftime then 55-50 at the three-quarter mark.
The Tall Ferns dug deep but couldn't sustain a mammoth final-quarter effort, Penina Davidson leading the way with 24 points and a 15-rebound haul.
Tall Ferns Head Coach Guy Molloy admitted to having mixed emotions after the game.
"It's certainly a bitter sweet feeling. We came here and got the job done that we wanted to do winning two games - I guess I'll blame China [who surprisingly lost to Korea on the opening day of the tournament].
"Funny things can happen in tournaments, Korea had an amazing win against China so we had a big ask today, but I couldn't be any more proud of the team," Molloy said.
Veteran guard Natalie Taylor echoed Molloy's sentiments.
"We talked about how hard it is to win at this level. It's exciting for our programme that we were able to get a win, but it's disappointing that we have been stopped in our tracks for the Olympics. I'm also really proud of the girls and the performance today," Taylor said.
Playing to win by a margin is not unique but Molloy conceded it's a big task.
"I've been involved in situations before where you have to win by margins and it is so difficult. You are playing well, you are six or eight points up but you are playing like you are in desperate circumstances. It's a very unusual psychology, but hey we will learn from it," Molloy said.
"We have some wonderful veterans in Nat [Taylor], Mic [Cocks] and Toni [Farnworth] who played their hearts out tonight. We've got an emerging group with people such as Kalani [Purcell], Penina [Davidson] and you can see where they are going in the future. Then we have some babies at the bottom end of it who just need to learn from this experience and soak it up. I just hope that they have done this, and we can bank this and keep raising the standard."
Taylor admitted playing in front of home fans had been a treat, with the crowd on their feet, willing the Tall Ferns on in the last quarter.
"Playing at home has been a real pleasure for all of us. It didn't quite get us over the line today, but it's been a good experience. It doesn't happen very often and I think we made the most of it," reflected Taylor.
Molloy said they had talked a lot about impact and legacy.
"The support was fantastic today which was awesome. The Tall Ferns really hope that women's basketball gets a huge push and momentum surge and I know the players are really hoping that their efforts have inspired a bunch of young players to say 'I'm going to play basketball and make it my sport, I want to get better and become a Tall Fern'.
"Hopefully we've accomplished that," concluded Molloy.
With points differential deciding the final placings, China and Korea pipped New Zealand to book their places at the next Olympic Qualifying Tournament in February.
Tall Ferns 69 - Davidson 24, Purcell 16, Farnworth 15, Taylor 6
Korea 65 - L Kang 21, J Kim 17, J Park 11