New Zealand outlasts Olympics newcomer Mali

Aug. 09, 2008, 12:03 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Unlike most teams that come to the Olympics with dreams of winning a medal, Mali's goal is just to win a game in its first Summer Games competition.

It fell just short on Saturday, in what may have been its best opportunity, losing to New Zealand 76-72.

Mali qualified for its first Olympics by winning the African championship, knocking off longtime champion Senegal. For earning the first Olympic bid in the country's history the president of Mali, Amadou Toumani Toure, gave each player a house in Mali's capital. He also promised to build a new basketball arena for the team.

"Because we only have one gym in the entire country we are forced to practice outside," said Mali forward Kadiatou Kanoute, who played college basketball at Fordham. "If it rains we just can't practice that day."

Practicing inside is no real bonus for Mali.

"The floor is far from being even and is full of bumps," Mali coach Jose Ruiz said. "It's so dirty that you can't even see the floor."

Despite its practice limitations and being one of the few women's teams to march in Friday night's opening ceremony, Mali was competitive against New Zealand - which did not march in the ceremony.

"The opening ceremonies were great and more than I expected," said Hamchetou Maiga, who led Mali with 18 points. "We got home at midnight, but I don't think I can use that as an excuse for the loss."

Maiga is one of the few Mali players with international experience. She has played in the WNBA since 2002, starting her career with the Sacramento Monarchs before joining the Houston Comets in 2007. She is averaging 7.8 points this season.

Playing in a very competitive pool that featured the three-time defending Olympic champion United States and host China, Mali figured New Zealand was its best chance to pull out a win.

"We really hoped that we could beat New Zealand," Kanoute said. "This is a tremendous experience for us."

Angela Marino scored 19 points and Kate McMeeken-Ruscoe hit two late 3-pointers to help New Zealand to the win.

"It's definitely nice to get a win in our first game on the Olympic stage," Marino said.

Trailing 69-66 with 2 minutes left, McMeeken-Ruscoe tied the game with a 3-pointer from the wing. After the teams traded baskets she hit another shot from the corner that gave New Zealand a 74-71 advantage.

After a free throw by Nagnouma Coulibaly cut Mali's deficit to two with 53.9 seconds left, they had one last chance, but Maiga was called for traveling with 4 seconds left. Marino hit two free throws to seal the win.

Mali trailed 64-56 early in the fourth quarter before going on a 13-2 run to take the three-point lead.

Djenebou Sissoko finished with 15 points for Mali, which qualified for its first Olympics by winning the African championship, knocking off longtime champion Senegal.

Lisa Wallburton had 13 points before fouling out and Jillian Harmon added 12 for New Zealand, which qualified for the Olympics by beating Fiji to win the Oceania championship. Australia didn't have to play in that tournament because the Opals automatically earned an Olympic berth by winning the 2006 world championships.

Mali finished sixth at the FIBA Diamond Ball tuneup tournament, showing they could compete with some of the top teams in the world for short stints.

In other games Saturday, Becky Hammon scored 11 points to lead Russia to a 62-57 win against Latvia. The Russians had lost to Latvia in the FIBA Diamond Ball tuneup tournament earlier in the week. Diana Taurasi had 17 points and the U.S. recovered from a slow start to rout the Czech Republic 97-57 in front of President Bush and the first family.

Australia topped Belarus 83-64 behind Lauren Jackson's 18 points and 10 rebounds. The Opals played for the first time in front of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

China edged Spain 67-64 in front of a boisterous crowd. Bian Lan scored 15 and grabbed 12 rebounds to lead the host nation.

Yeonha Beon and Younah Choi each scored 19 points to help Korea beat Brazil 68-62 in overtime. The Koreans went on a 11-2 run to start the extra period and never looked back. Brazil had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation, but Micaela Jacinto missed a 15-footer from the corner that bounced off the rim twice before falling out.