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R11 Preview: New Zealand v Illawarra

Who: New Zealand Breakers v Illawarra Hawks When: 3pm (AEDT), Sunday 20 December Where: Vector Arena, Auckland Watch: 9Gem; Fox Sports; Sky Sports NZ; NBL Live App Last time they met: Illawarra 96 (Penney 36, Ogilvy 23) d New Zealand 75 (Charles Jackson 20, Wesley 14), Round 2, WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong THE MATCH-UP Corey Webster v Kirk Penney – Arguably the two greatest scorers New Zealand has ever produced match up for the first time away from the Tall Blacks practice court this Sunday. Can the young buck take the mantle from the proud old lion? THE STATS Penney has unleashed on some of the world’s best teams during his international career, including 37 points against Lithuania, 36 on Croatia, 30 on Australia and 29 on both Germany and Serbia. Webster has racked up 26 against Lithuania, 23 on Slovenia, 22 on both Australia and Turkey, as well as 19 against Croatia and 18 on Serbia. If Breakers jumping jack Tom Abercrombie looks a little sore on Sunday, it might be from sitting on the fence when asked the question everybody wants answered – who’s better, Kirk Penney or Corey Webster? “Oh, look they're both playing pretty well, it’s hard to choose one,” he said, understandably. “I know Corey’s really looking forward to the match-up. Those two guys between them can certainly score the ball so it makes for a pretty exciting match-up.” It’s a question that would have been laughed at two years ago, but in 2014 Webster took over as New Zealand’s number one scorer and hasn’t let go since. Yet while Penney struggled at the 2014 World Cup, Abercrombie isn’t surprised to see the 35-year-old back to his best with Illawarra. “He didn’t have a great World Cup, but in all the lead-up he was still being Kirk. Sometimes it happens to you, he was disappointed with that and he’s obviously bounced back,” he said. “He’s very professional in the way he looks after himself and takes care of his body, that’s the reason he’s playing so well right now, and I’ve learned a lot from him in that regard.” Abercrombie will also spend time defending the man who has been his role model – and who scorched the Breakers for 36 points in Round 2 – but he knows with Kevin Lisch, Rhys Martin, Oscar Forman, Tim Coeenraad and Co freed of their conscience by coach Rob Beveridge, every Hawk has to be guarded. “Sometimes you feel like that’s a shot you’re willing to give up, but with the kind of shooters they’ve got you can’t give up anything,” he said. “You’ve really got to run them off the three but they do a good job of pounding the ball inside, they’ve got a good balance going.” Yet while personal battles will be put aside as the Breakers look to consolidate second place and put a 2.5-game break on fourth-placed Illawarra, Abercrombie knows that Penney’s return will make it more than just another game. “I’m sure he’s looking forward to it. He hasn’t played at Vector before and it’s going to be a great atmosphere there, there are a lot of people who are excited to come and watch him play,” he said. THE WRAP While the perimeter match-ups – Penney v Webster and Lisch v Cedric Jackson in particular – will be much-hyped, the inside battle with AJ Ogilvy facing Charles Jackson and Alex Pledger could be just as important. Ogilvy was dominant in the Round 2 match-up, but Abercrombie believes the Breakers’ two-headed monster is a much tougher proposition now, and said “we pride ourselves on handling those guys one-on-one in the post”. At the other end, can Ogilvy keep up with Jackson in transition? Jackson and Pledger have averaged a combined 3.1 blocks and 7.1 offensive rebounds in the past eight games, the latter figure crucial in denying the Hawks’ transition opportunities, and you can bet Abercrombie, Mika Vukona and Co will test Illawarra’s rebounding toughness outside of Ogilvy. In Wollongong, the Hawks are clearly the league’s best offensive team, but away from home their output has been inconsistent. New Zealand are conceding just 76.1ppg in Auckland, and the Hawks must find an answer for their disciplined help-and-recover defence to pinch a road W.
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