Manu carries Argentina into last 8

Star scores 28 for Olympic champs in win over New Zealand

Manu Ginobili has never shunned the spotlight. And he wasn’t going to start on Saturday.

Ginobili scored 16 of his game-high 28 points in the second half, steering Argentina to a 79-62 win over New Zealand at Saitama Super Arena on the first day of the FIBA World Championship’s second-round contests.

New Zealand was eliminated from the tournament. Argentina (6-0) advanced to the quarterfinals on Tuesday against the Turkey-Slovenia winner.

Ginobili added another make-them-say-wow performance to his long list of accomplishments.

He drained 10 of 15 shots from the field and drove the lane with the fearless mentality that has won him fame and fortune as a two-time NBA champ with the San Antonio Spurs and as an Italian League champ earlier in his career.

Simply put, Ginobili hit the shots his team needed him to hit. Again.

“I don’t need to talk too much about him,” Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said of the all-world guard.

“For our team, he’s the man. When we need his points, he scores a lot of points.”

Argentina, which won the 2004 Olympic gold medal with Ginobili playing a starring role, picked up the pace in the second half.

Leading 37-29 at the break, Argentina used a 12-2 spurt to lift its advantage to 51-35 after a Fabricio Oberto tip-in at the 5:02 mark. Ginobili sank two free throws, hit a stop-and-pop jumper and slammed down a dunk during the run.

In the fourth quarter, New Zealand slashed the lead to 67-58 on a Pero Cameron 3-pointer with 4:38 remaining.

On its next possession, Argentina’s Pepe Sanchez’s missed a 3-pointer, but teammate Carlos Delfino grabbed an offensive rebound — one of 17 for Argentina — and the ball wound up in Ginobili’s magical hands.

His 3-ball with 3:50 to go pushed the lead to 12 and started a decisive 12-3 run for the Argentine squad.

The South American power led by as many as 21, taking its largest lead of the game (79-58) when Oberto, another San Antonio Spur, scored an inside bucket on a well-timed bounce pass from Sanchez. He finished with 21 points.

Argentina dominated in key statistical categories — free-throw attempts (29-12), rebounds (46-31) and points in the paint (52-32) — but its production from 3-point range was atypically woeful (1-for-18).

This is why Ginobili’s production was the X-factor for Argentina, which worked the ball around on the perimeter for open looks but had an off-game from the outside.

“He said, ‘OK, today I have to score a lot of points,’ ” Hernandez said.

Mark Dickel led New Zealand with 14 points and Kirk Penney had 11.

The Tall Blacks shot 39 percent (24 of 61), taking 30 of their shots from 3-point range.

New Zealand strung together a run of five points in the opening half, but never had a larger spurt.

It was a telltale sign of Argentina’s stingy defense, led by its starting five (Sanchez, Ginobili in the backcourt and Luis Scola, Oberto and Chicago Bulls rising star Andres Nocioni up front) and high-energy backups.

“I believe in the important time of the game we were able to get the win because of our defense,” said Argentina center Ruben Wolkowyski.

Cameron summed up the Tall Blacks’ 1-5 record at the worlds this way: “Every performance, I think, has been subpar.”

He talked about the team’s positive outlook entering the tourney and the motivation it had to build off a fourth-place finish at the 2002 World Championship. Then he shook his head and added this statement:

“(We) came into the campaign experienced, but our performance didn’t show that.”

New Zealand coach Tab Baldwin expressed a similar viewpoint.

“We’re disappointed to be out of the tournament now,” he said, adding his squad lost to a great team.

Argentina has “proven that with their gold medal and they proved it in pool play.”

For the Argentine faithful and international basketball fans who watched the action in Saitama, Ginobili’s big-game effort demonstrated what Hernandez has come to expect from his star.

But on a day when the plucky Tall Blacks made things interesting, Ginobili scored the big buckets

“I think he’s different,” Hernandez said. “He’d be happy to score one point if we win.

“This is the difference between a good player and a great player.”

Baldwin resigns

After the game, Baldwin told his players that he was retiring from international coaching.

Baldwin, a 48-year-old native of Florida, steps down with a solid track record. Since taking over as the Tall Blacks coach in 2001, he has transformed the team’s image from obscurity into respectability, guiding it to a fourth-place spot at the 2002 FIBA World Championship and a 10th-place showing at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

“I just think it was time,” Baldwin said, citing the demands of coaching 12 months out of the year.

Baldwin commended the job his players did during his time at the helm, crediting them for making the program a success.

“If I’ve done a good job, it was only because of the guys (I coached),” Baldwin said.

He led the Auckland Stars to five New Zealand League titles in eight seasons before quitting as coach in 2001. He’s still the winningest coach in NBL history.

In the past three years, he’s guided Banvitspor of the Turkish League.

On Saturday afternoon, Baldwin reflected on his stint as Tall Blacks coach with nothing but pride.

“The number of highlights I have had defies description,” he said.

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