Defending champion China leaned on reedy shooter Zhou Peng in the stretch to hammer out a 73-67 decision of Kazakhstan at the start of its second-round stint in the 27th Fiba Asia Championship.
The 6-foot-7 Zhou tossed in nine points inside the final 7:28, including a string of seven as China crept closer to the magic circle of teams that will make the knockout quarterfinals stage after rising to 1-2 last night.
China played as if it was on the home floor of the Kazakhs at Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay as a growing gallery awaiting the Gilas Pilipinas-Japan game rooted for its foes, knowing the implications for the Filipinos in case of a Chinese victory.
But Zhou had other things in mind and almost singlehandedly repulsed what could have been a huge upset by a team considered by many as not having a rich basketball tradition.
“It was a difficult win for us,” Zhou told reporters through an interpreter. “Our team is going through difficult times. But will show our nation that we will be better.”
Kazakhstan doggedly came back from several 16-point deficits in the first half even with a lineup that is undersized at the middle and pales in comparison to the towering Chinese.
And it looked like the Kazakhs were about to pull an upset as they edged in front, 63-62, entering the final 3:12 after two free throws from burly power forward Mikhail Yevstigneyev.
Zhou then gave the Chinese the lead to stay with a long jumper, 64-63, before drilling a triple from right quarter court heading into the final 2:09.
Kazakhstan threatened last at 65-67 after two charities from Jerri Johnson before the veteran Wang Zhizhi hit a followup of a Zhou miss. China then watched the Kazakhs muff two triple tries that sealed their doom.
China has lightweights Bahrain and India as its last foes in the round and is expected to go to 3-2 going into the KO stage starting Friday. The worst finish that the Chinese could expect is fourth, hence, drawing the No. 1 seed from the other group as a quarterfinal foe.
Kazakhstan dropped to 2-1 with its first loss but stayed second in Group F behind the 3-0 slate of title-favorite Iran.
CHINA 73—Zhou 17, Zhu 15, Wang Zhizhi 12, Wang Shipeng 9, Sun 6, Chen 4, Wang Zhelin 4, Li 3, Guo 2, Zhang 1, Liu 0.
KAZAKHSTAN 67—Jonson 13, Yevstigneyev 11, Lapchenko 9, Yargaliyev 9, Klimov 7, Murzagaliyev 6, Ponomarev 6, Bondarovic 6, Sultanov 0, Bazkhin 0, Dvirnyy 0, Zhigulin 0.
Quarters: 24-12, 42-30, 50-46, 73-67