They came from Silicon Valley and the home of the Bills Mafia, East Texas and the city where Giannis goes to work, the reed covered lodge by the little water place to the home state of Jed Bartlett, Brooklyn and a city Springfield elementary cancelled a trip to, all on the same Odyssey yet sort of on two separate ones…it’s a little confusing but we’ll clear it up. Emmet Ryan went to the SSE Arena to see 8 schools compete across two brackets in the 2018 Hall of Fame Belfast Classic
The 7.35am to Belfast is comfortable once you’re on board. The Enterprise, meant to refer to cross border business rather than the starship, is a nice train. Unfortunately, it was still at 7.35am train and the prior night had been glad-handing in the day job at the National Project Awards. This was not optimal.
Passing by the SSE Arena, better known as the Odyssey, the cool breeze was a mighty wake-up and then to the left were the queues of schoolchildren. Kids from around Belfast with banners supporting colleges from across the pond. The Buffalo fan club was in fine form just shy of the turn for the media entrance. They may not have known it but they had a lot of reason to be confident. The Bulls entered this tournament as the 21 ranked side in the US and overwhelming favourites to take the Goliath bracket title.
For newcomers, in order to make the eight team tournament work there were qualifying games for the two brackets in the US beforehand. The top four sides made it to the Goliath bracket while the four losing sides in those early games moved into the Samson bracket. The names reflect the two great cranes within view of the the arena, the famous Harland & Wolff logo adorning each as the longest tenured landmark in Titanic quarter. The arena is located just a short walk from bot the Titanic museum and the Game of Thrones experience.
The morning vibe was really obvious for the guts of the first half of Friday’s opener before the Bulls pulled ahead into a 43-32 lead, fuelled by Nick Perkins going 3 of 4 from deep. There was a bigger scorer on the floor during the first timeout of the second half however as Katie Smith, recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, was introduced to the crowd. Her ludicrous list of honours, including 2 WNBA titles, 3 Olympic gold medals, and league titles in Poland and Turkey, to go along with her 7 All Star appearances and finals MVP award is impressive but, as the video board showed at the second timeout of the half, it was her personality and attitude that spoke far more to the schoolkids she met here.
Milwaukee rallied a bit to cut it to 4 points at one point in the second half but the result was never truly in doubt. Perkins continued to dominate and the Bulls rolled into Saturday’s final 96-77. After the game, the players were thrilled to experience the crowd here in Belfast although their coach, Nate Oats, had a good laugh as he pointed out that some of the children were rooting for Milwaukee “Some kids have to go home unhappy.”
Next up was the San Francisco Dons, with Bill Cartwright in the house watching on, against every pro wrestling fan’s favourite team “Stone Cold” Stephen F. Austin. The crowd was definitely with the Dons as they got a massive cheer when announced. The Texas school had the tougher jounrey here. Having initially been meant to arrive at 5am on Tuesday in Dublin followed by a 2 hour drive to Belfast, they got re-routed to London and suffered another delay before getting into town around 6pm that evening. The extra travel wasn’t showing too much for them as they were sprightly against a fancied San Francisco team.
Everyone was more sprightly all round. The earlier arrivals compared to 2017 were clearly making a huge difference. The jetlag that slowed up the sides on the opening day a year ago just wasn’t there and everyone looked comfortable on the floor. Through the first 10 minutes it was a tight affair but, just as Buffalo had with Milwaukee, the Dons stretched it out more and had built up a cushion entering the closing stages of the half, relying on what one colleague referred to as a “super obnoxious” defence to get in the faces of the Lumberjacks. A rally from SFA closed it to just a single score at the break.
You could feel that difference in pace all the same. It wasn’t just the lack of sleep catching up with me. The traditional small school college ball game from USF meant we weren’t getting the same verve off the floor into the stands. The crowd had dulled with the switch in gears. The Dons would move out, the Jacks would reel them in. Scoring was permanently slow. Having not noticed the 30 second clock, including on offensive boards (praise be to FIBA’s 14 second clock) in the opener, the possessions here were dragging.
By the middle of the second half the gap opened up and stopped closing. There was one slick move from Frankie Ferrari to Jordan Ratinho on a fast break for a long three that got the most generous bounce off the rim before going in. With the lead growing, we finally saw the Dons loosen up a bit and the tail end of the game provided the most entertainment. The win was comfortable but they still looked unlikely to be a real threat to Buffalo’s unbeaten record on Saturday.
With the break came time to check into the hotel and have the finest offerings from Spar’s pre-packaged sandwiches across the road before switching to the Samson bracket where the consolation game between Dartmouth and Albany was first on the card.
Albany were looking to break an odd little bit of history. Through 4 games in Belfast over the two years of the tournament, teams wearing purple were 0-4 coming into this one. If you include the US based play-in games it’s 1-5 due to Stephen F. Austin’s win over Marist. Still, in this arena, there was a streak nobody cared about to break.
At the 7 minute mark, Dartmouth had run out to a 23-9 lead. The streak looked really safe.
There are so many timeouts in college ball and it really takes some adjustment when you’re used to there being far fewer breaks in Europe. At Bayern vs CSKA a few weeks ago one of the other journalists was annoyed they’d called the TV timeout too early, after around 6 minutes of uninterrupted action. The game is the same but the differences stand out.
Although the crowd had dropped off for the consolation game, Dartmouth had brought some vocal fans over with them and they were in fine mood as the Big Green looked in control throughout the early stages. Albany couldn’t blame jetlag, they’d arrived a day before everyone else. In their last outing of the trip, they’d just swallowed a 14-0 run heading into the media timeout.
Some of the Albany fouls looked like those of a team without enough rest. Sasha French never looked like anything other than giving up an easy foul near the midpoint of the half as he was forced to take a seat. Things got worse as the Dartmouth lead grew to 24 before the next timeout. The natural argument here viewing would have been to say Albany should have been ready to fight on despite the deficit but you can’t blame a bunch of kids who’d had a tough night the previous evening in a narrow defeat to LIU Brooklym, were in an essentially nothing game for their season, and looked like they really just wanted to get home. They have another three months of the season to make up for this one night. Actually, they’d get one in a little over two weeks as they already had Dartmouth on their schedule before ending up facing them in this consolation game.
Turns out the kids had some fight in them, reeling off a 12-0 to put a sliver of dignity back on the scoreboard. At the half Dartmouth led 49-32. There was never any real sniff of an actual comeback. Dartmouth left Belfast with a win, 91-77.
The main event of Friday closed a long day as Marist College took on LIU Brooklyn in the Samson championship game. Marist has just started a partnership with Dublin Business School and bussed up some students for the game to add to the atmosphere. The Blackbirds came out looking to play fast, really fast. Marist were happy to do likewise. The ball was moving quickly between hands as both sides delivered a tempo that drew the crowd in.
Sweden’s Tobias Sjoberg dropped a dunk early for the Red Foxes to get the crowd going. This was a simple case of two teams going for a trophy and playing like that. No nerves, just straight up balling. That Sjoberg make was part of a 13-0 run for Marist as they took the early advantage.
LIU snapped it but then Marist put the foot down again to move into a double digit lead at the mid-point of the half. Albany may have lost but there was still one great Dane out there as David Knudsen lined up alongside Sjoberg. Montenegrin big Aleksandar Dozic completed a Euro contingent for the Red Foxes that was making a notable contribution.
The second run was 14-0 before Brooklyn got a break. When the bleeding got too bad, they were able to patch up but it was far more energy sapping for the Blackbirds chasing this game. Sjoberg got a lucky roll late in the half and Brian Parker beat the buzzer from deep as Marist went in with a 37-20 lead.
Knudsen made a great heads up play to start the second that was more suited to Gaelic Football. Going after a loose ball on the bounce on the right sideline at mid-court, the Dane walloped it with his right hand over the head of Jashaun Agosto and then chased it down to finish. Isaiah Lamb then made a quick steal to set up Sjoberg and the lead was past 20 with LIU looking spent before a minute was gone in the second half.
This time the run was only 9 but it had the desired effect. The crowd dulled a bit before Lamb slammed one home to wake everybody up. For all the offensive efficiency, this had been a defensive suffocation job by Marist. LIU had 8 points in the game’s first 3 minutes and then just 14 more in the next 24.
With 10 minutes to play, there was zero hope of this one livening up. Such was the efficacy of Marist’s approach to this game. They didn’t look or play like a side going in on short rest. This was a fresh outfit that ran, played smart, and found itslef not really needing to worry about what happened for a large chunk of the game other than how best to pose for the presentation.
The evening crowd got their own introduction to Katie Smith as well and she spoke kindly of the city again. Then Lamb made another big dunk to briefly wake everyone once more. The clock eventually hit the finally buzzer, with Marist taking a facile victory 70-53.
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Post-game the Euros involved were in good form, even LIU’s Julius Van Sauers. The Dutchman had, like most of the Euros here, some family over to make the short trip and see him play closer to home.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been here. I’ve been in the United States three years. My father came to see me, it’s very close from Amsterdam and he brought his best friend. The experience was great, the energy was great, we received a lot of love out here and I didn’t expect that.”
It was quite the opportunity for Knudsen as well. The Dane is a senior so getting to come this close to home in his final season with the Red Foxes was a special moment.
“My mom, my dad, and two friends from America that are close to our family came over. It’s a long time since I played in Europe, it’s fun to be back. I’m probably going to be back and do that after this year but it was fun to be back,” he said.
“There’s definitely a difference. It’s way more athletic in America, in college basketball. There have been some rough years but it’s been educational. It’s been a learning experience but there have been up and downs.”
It’s more the midpoint of his college career for Sjoberg. This was a particularly strong outing for him and it wasn’t a surprise given he’d brought a good contingent from Sweden too, with his mother, father, his brother, and his brother’s girlfriend, all making the trip.
“My family also give me inspiration. We really wanted to win, we were very excited to win. We have grown so much this season, we’re playing to our strengths,” he said.
“I enjoy the style we’re playing right now and the years I’ve been in college have been great.”
Sjoberg wouldn’t get to celebrate for too long. Back in Poughkeepsie he had exams coming up on Monday and Tuesday after his transatlantic flight on Sunday.
Saturday morning had a nice wet mist, ideal for waking up and getting back in gear. It had been a quiet enough night in, between this and the day job I was hitting my 13th straight day working, so that was the right little morning buzz to get going on the walk back to the SSE Arena.
Stephen F. Austin and Milwaukee opened the final day of action in front of a strong and excited crowd. The fatigue of the late session on Friday was gone and a new bunch of people were here and cheering hard for both sides. Gareth Maguire, one of the brains behind the event was in a fantastic mood.
“It’s been emotional, it’s been a rollercoaster. So much goes into making it happen. There’s a lot of pressure, financially it’s very difficult and we’ve not government here at the moment…”
Imma let you finish Gareth but for our readers who are fortunate enough to be unaware of Northern Irish politics, the regional government hasn’t sat in two years because of assorted disputes that you can Google. The key thing to bear in mind is that this means there are major limitations on every kind of organisation there when it comes to accessing government funding. Both editions of the Belfast Classic have taken place during this shutdown.
Now back to Gareth.
“…we’ve great departments in Tourism Ireland and Tourism Northern Ireland along with Belfast City Council. They’ve been critical but in terms of the other additional support that would come with that, you need your government involved in big things like this. It would certainly help [to have a sports minister].”
Still, for all the obstacles beyond his control nothing could dampen Maguire’s spirit. The man was excited and thrilled about what was in front of him, an event that drew 14,621 across all sessions.
“On Friday we had 5,000 kids here, all being introduced to the game. There’s a whole other opportunity around the things we’re doing. The growth is critical, if we don’t have that infrastructural support we’ll find other ways.”
Maguire’s daughter Anna is playing for St Peter’s in Jersey City as a sophomore. While she was keeping an eye on the action from campus, she also had a keen eye on her father.
“Daughters are daughters. I got interviewed on CBS the other day and she sent me a text ‘Daddy, why are you wearing that cardigan?’, that was her concern. I’m proud that my daughters are proud of what we’re achieving,” he said.
“I want all of Ireland to take advantage of this event. We’re bring the best basketball in the world here. Every one of these seats here will be filled with kids getting inspired. We had busses coming here from Tralee and Cork. It’s not about filling the arena, it’s about inspiring the next generation.”
He got the type of buzz he wanted in Belfast alright and the Jacks went to work finally ending the purple curse. After a tight first half, they (admittedly wearing their black unis with purple trim) built up a big lead early in the second before eventually taking the win.
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I caught up with Cartwright as his unbeaten Dons arrived. He’d had a great time in Belfast, on his first visit to the island and was looking forward to the title game later on.
“It’s great, the tournament has really good teams. It gives us an opportunity to bring our guys to somewhere they’ve never seen before, to see Ireland, to see Belfast. I would have loved to have been able to come over and do that when I was a kid. I’ve seen the sights, the castles, Titanic museum, and, then of course, eaten a lot of food,” he said.
“It’s been too short. We haven’t seen nearly enough. You always hope the weather is a tad bit better because we always want to get out and see everything. Maybe when the weather’s a little better we’ll come back out.”
Through his coaching career, Cartwright had stints in Japan, Mexico, and, of course, in the NBA. The game for him stays the same wherever he sees it.
“Basketball is consistently the same. Hard work, focus, and team work are the most important things and that’s universal. Everywhere you go in the world, you’re going to see that. As far as this being in Ireland, it’s been terrific. We’ve just enjoyed our experience.”
It’s also an exciting time for the Dons, aside from having a good start to the season the school is about to get new neighbours. The Golden State Warriors new arena will be in the city, coming across from Oakland, and Cartwright would like to see USF benefit from the arrival.
“We’d like to develop a relationship with them. It’s going to be a beautiful arena, it’s going to be great for San Francisco, we’re hoping to have the Dons play a game or two there a season.”
Soon it was time for the finale. The first half had a slow start but it quickly turned into easily best game of the tournament. The crowd really got into it and were screaming wildly, even for a flip flop promotion at half time. Just to cap things off there was a grandstand finish as Buffalo held on to take the win and move to 7-0 on the season.
Tournament MVP Nick Perkins, was in a good mood afterwards. “We got two good wins, we’ve learned a lot about the team. It’s been a wonderful experience. Being able to meet the kids, just experiencing the different culture and what Northern Irish people do has been amazing.”
The people here had a major impact on all of the teams but perhaps no more than on Stephen F Austin coach Kyle Keller. Seeing what had become of this part of the world and its recovery from the troubles moved him.
“Colleges should want to come over here. The travel is not the easiest but once you get here it’s a great experience. Playing the Star Spangled banner today, it really gave me chills to be grateful. When I think about what your country has done in the last 30, 40 years, and how it’s grown, it’s an honour for me as a United States citizen to come over here and to see that you all opened up your doors for us,” said Keller.
“To see what Northern Ireland is all about, it’s just a privilege to be here. The downtown was special, to see all the peace walls, we didn’t grow up in the United States with that. What you guys have been able to accomplish is phenomenal. To see the groups come together, it’s a fabulous experience for our kids to see it first hand because we haven’t experienced that in our generation. To see how people can melt the melting pots together, it’s an awesome experience.”
Keller’s side had the least time ahead of the games to take in the city due to their travel issues but, as he spoke following that third place game, he was keen to make up for lost time. The arena cleared out fast after the final, it had to be set up for a Def Leppard concert the following evening, so it was quickly time to hit the road. Heading towards the bus back to Dublin, the Christmas lights were up in Belfast including City Hall.
Passing it at the same time as me, coming back into the heart of the town, was that Stephen F Austin side taking everything in. Appropriately, One Shining Moment just happened to be playing on my Spotify as I spotted them. Matching the drama of that moment against VCU in 2014 is a big ask for the Jacks this year but this team along with seven others has its own memories secured.
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