U.S. shakes off slow start to beat New Zealand in FIBA World Cup opener

U.S. forward Paolo Banchero elevates for a layup against New Zealand on Saturday.
U.S. forward Paolo Banchero gets past New Zealand forward Tohi Smith-Milner for a layup Saturday in both teams’ FIBA World Cup opener.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

Paolo Banchero scored 21 points off the bench, Anthony Edwards added 14 and the U.S. shook off a slow start to beat New Zealand 99-72 on Saturday in the FIBA World Cup opener for both teams.

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Austin Reaves each scored 12 for the Americans, who remained unbeaten in six games this summer — the first five of them exhibitions. This game was the first that counted for the Americans, who are trying to win the World Cup for the sixth time and erase the memory of finishing seventh in FIBA’s biggest tournament four years ago in China.

“I love watching them play,” U.S. coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s been an absolute joy to coach them just because of their eagerness to play together and be selfless and to compete.”


It wasn’t easy for the pre-tournament favorites: Their lead was only 12 with 2:01 to go in the third before Banchero sank three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to give the U.S. its biggest edge of the night to that point, and the Americans kept control from there.

Reuben Te Rangi led New Zealand with 15 points.

“And his defense,” Edwards said of Banchero. “I think his defense energized his offense.”

New Zealand’s players performed a pregame haka — the traditional show of national pride expressed through dance and chanting by the entire 12-man roster — with the U.S. players standing at the other end and watching in silence.

The haka worked; New Zealand took a quick 14-4 lead.

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Eventually, though, the U.S. started figuring things out. A 12-2 run tied the score, and Tyrese Haliburton’s three-pointer with 6:58 left in the half put the Americans up for good. The lead was 45-36 by the half and they wouldn’t trail again.

The haka took Banchero back to his high school days. Playing football on a team with Pacific Islanders, Banchero has actually done the haka. He knows its meaning, knows its intent — and it might have sparked him to his best game so far this summer.

“It was good to be able to see up close,” Banchero said. “I actually enjoyed it.”

The U.S. could secure a spot in the second round as early as Monday, when it takes on Greece (1-0) in a rematch of an exhibition game in Abu Dhabi earlier this month. The Americans won that game 108-86, with both teams holding some things back knowing they’d play for higher stakes in Manila.

Greece coach Dimitrios Itoudis said he expected his team’s opening game — a 21-point win over Jordan on Saturday — to be tough. He was asked postgame what he expected from the matchup with the U.S.


“Tougher one,” Itoudis said. “Much tougher one.”