Cup basketball brings the rawest emotions to the fore, Emmet Ryan witnessed that first hand on Saturday night.
A league season, particularly in one of those rare leagues where the post-season is a secondary concern, is all about emotional balance. Sure there are some particularly high and low points but by and large it’s a comfortable norm. When it ends we are sad and the feeling lingers but it’s not sharp. It’s the end of a long relationship. There may be one big spark at the conclusion but with or without that we know it’s about everything that happened over the course of the whole thing even if we focus too much on specific points. That’s not to say it’s easy, just that it’s got a deeper feeling to it that often resides far below the surface,
Cup basketball has no time for such maturity of emotion.
It’s the instant high and the immediate pain and that pain stings high. When you are on that journey it’s a rush like no other and you will do everything to keep it going because nothing compares to it. When it ends or even just goes off course, you feel the most intense emotions. In either event, the feeling doesn’t linger as long but it’s far more on top of you than the league. You have to get it out even though there are parts of you which tell you not to.
On Saturday night in Belfield, I spoke with two coaches after the final gun who were feeling that intensity. Ioannis Liapakis had just seen his UCD Marian team beat Neptune 95-77 in the first leg of their first round Irish Cup game. That’s a big lead to bring, not insurmountable but certainly the sign of a good night’s work. Liapakis however was firmly in Cup mode. He knows the job isn’t done, he knows he could have done more, his team just put together an extraordinary performance that included playing the final 13 minutes without their lone pro. Does this sound like a man who is happy?
And the scary part is he’s right. UCD Marian didn’t deliver the perfection that Cup basketball demands. A league campaign allows for the bumps and grooves. The Cup, and it’s no accident I capitalise it over league, requires you to be at your absolute best without room for failure. His opposite number, Ger Noonan, is also a player for Neptune. Noonan missed a few shots on Saturday night that couldn’t have fallen but they didn’t. It happens. He got in the right spot, he played the game the way a veteran needs to, but sometimes the buckets don’t come. While enduring his on court frustrations he had to watch his team give up a heap of turnovers. As a player and a coach, he was feeling everything. Watch Noonan here.
He’s absolutely beyond help, well, at least until he gets home to bed. I caught Noonan about 30 minutes after Liapakis. The immediate post-whistle rush is gone but the emotions are still raw, even after a shower. Noonan knows well that the git with a camera asking him questions isn’t to blame but there are few places he’d rather be. The wait has done him good, he’s keeping it together, and by the time he wakes up in the morning he’ll still be swearing at himself but the energy he has lost will have returned.
So what exactly happened in this gym in the middle of a bizarre superstructure? UCD Marian suffered a 17 point beating at the hands of Neptune just two weeks prior to this in the same venue but now they had built up a big lead to bring to Cork for the return leg and yet neither coach seemed happy.
Preston Ross came into this game off, by his high standards, a so-so outing against UCC Demons. With a chip on his shoulder he was all aggression whenever he was on the floor. Ross attacked with a kill, crush, destroy mentality and he really didn’t care how he did it. Dunking on a put back, charging into triple coverage, or stalking the outside, Ross wanted the ball and he wanted to hurt Neptune. The rest of the UCD Marian side played with the same gusto. This was their night in front of their fans and they brought the ruckus by turning that wild dominance in the turnover game into a ton of fast break points. A 30 point quarter in the second frame was the height of their intensity.
It was hardly like Neptune lacked hunger, they played with the same fire and emotion of the home team but when you play that game it either goes very right or very wrong and the Cork club came out on the latter end for most of the night.
Noonan, who is still beating himself up on the bus home as I write this, didn’t get it in the heat of the moment that he did a good job digging his team out of a hole.
With around 3 minutes and change to play in the third his side got one break but they got a bigger bounce by the player-coach’s adjustments. Ross had to sit with an ankle injury, one that likely won’t hurt him beyond this game, and Noonan was already on the bench with three fouls. While Ross would have no more impact on the game, there was still room for the Neptune multi-tasker to swing matters. The home side had moved into a 26 point lead, the type of situation that looks grim even in two-leg play. In those dying minutes of the third, Noonan got his players to force UCD into situations where they had to foul. This quickly brought the visitors into bonus territory and the home side into a lot of foul trouble.
Had Noonan not rallied the troops then, the margin could have been 30 for the second leg (Noonan said 40 but cooler heads would be a touch more conservative). That’s why Nigel Byam, who had been on court all night, was one of the cooler heads coming out of the locker room.
It’s also why Liapakis was so incensed. He had outplayed Noonan but not enough to kill the tie off and he knew. That’s why, for all the Greek’s strategic endeavour and raw emotion, this clash is still in the balance. Over a season, Neptune probably finish above UCD Marian more often than not but this isn’t a drawn out affair.
This is intense passion where we know there are teams who have an edge but nothing like what they gain over a full campaign. No, this is the place where the right gamble can give the other guy a shot at glory. In Cup basketball, the stage is set for those who can’t make that long-term project work but aren’t a million miles off. They don’t need to worry about those rough edges undoing them over time. They just need it to work long enough to claim the ultimate glory. When it doesn’t, the pain hurts bad but it will subside.
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