MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Paolo Banchero knows all about the haka, the traditional dance that was performed by New Zealand's players pregame on Saturday as the traditional rallying cry to show national pride and serve as a challenge to opponents.
He accepted that challenge.
Banchero scored 21 points off the bench in his first World Cup game, Anthony Edwards added 14 and the U.S. shook off a 10-point early deficit on the way to beating New Zealand 99-72 in the tournament opener for both teams.
“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.”
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.
It wasn’t easy for the pre-tournament favorites: Their lead was only 12 with 2:01 to go in the third before Banchero hit 3-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.
“And his defense,” Edwards said of Banchero. “I think his defense energized his offense.”
New Zealand’s players performed that pregame haka — the show of dancing, stomping and chanting done 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. A 12-2 run by the U.S. tied the game, Tyrese Haliburton’s 3-pointer with 6:58 left in the first half put the Americans up for good, the lead was 45-36 by the half and the winners kept pulling away.
“They went on a little run, but no nerves,” Edwards said. “We do this. We put the work in.”
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 maybe it 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.”
New Zealand: No player on New Zealand’s roster has played an NBA game. The players on the U.S. roster have combined to score 49,395 points in 3,454 NBA games, including playoffs. … Finn Delany and Shea Ili each scored 12. ... New Zealand's bench got outscored 54-23 by the U.S. reserves.
USA: Jackson Jr. had a perfect shooting night — 4 for 4 from the field, 4 for 4 from the line. ... The Americans used 10 players in the first quarter, looking for the combination that worked. ... The U.S. outscored New Zealand by 28 points in Josh Hart's 15 minutes of play. ... Haliburton and Jalen Brunson each scored 10 points for the Americans.
The U.S. assistant coaches are splitting scouting responsibilities during the tournament. Gonzaga coach Mark Few was tasked with preparing the report for the New Zealand game, Los Angeles Clippers coach Tyronn Lue will do it for the Greece game on Monday and Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has it for the Jordan game on Wednesday.
The U.S. has played New Zealand four times now in senior men’s competition and won them all. The U.S. prevailed 102-56 at the 2000 Olympics, 110-62 at the 2002 World Cup and 98-71 at the 2014 World Cup.
New Zealand: Faces Jordan on Monday.
USA: Faces Greece on Monday.