This was not a good basketball game by any stretch but at least history was guaranteed no matter what. Tralee Warriors and Éanna were both looking for a first ever trip to Irish men’s cup final and Éanna were good for their win in a game where the only thing they’ll want to remember is the result, writes Emmet Ryan
This one had the strong scent of game of the weekend off it the moment the two sides were paired in the semis. Then, 7 days before this knockout battle, Tralee and Éanna played a crazy game in the Super League in Tralee. Throw in the sheer abundance of talent on both sides, the variety of options in scoring, and the packed house, and anybody who knows anything about the sport here was expecting a war…well, we got one just more of the miserable trench what wars are actually like wars not the Hollywood description of battles.
We got one early, physical but not nasty. More just old fashioned blue collar defence as neither side was too worried about scoring, much more about the other going on a run. It was fine but Joshua Wilson could see a seam. He started to make a few soft drives at Tralee in the paint. The Éanna point guard was scoring but the purpose seemed far more about probing, looking to see where he could really explode. Not that anything was overly cautious. These were two meaty teams trying to measure each other up early. Both could smell this one was going to be a drawn out battle.
Where Tralee are guts and frenzy, kept in some order by the Paul Dick on the point, Éanna present a more measured kind of energy. It’s classic rock vs BBC Radio 3, two vintage approaches with just wildly different flavours. It just depends on what you’re in the mood for. The Radio 3 element of Éanna heavily comes from their Serbian star Stefan Zecevic. He is the prototype Balkan-school guard. Zecevic has strong awareness, his swag is in the shots he selects rather than how he celebrates, and the dull stuff matters to him. He also usually gets off to much faster starts than he had in this game.
End of round 1, 14-14. In a clash like this, both coaches would probably be happy just starting with a minute left in the fourth.
The cold war phase was starting to tire on the crowd early in the second. A three, early, by Kiearn Donaghy was the only fieldn= goal in the opening 4 minutes. With the two teams retreating into their shells, this game needed something a little mad. Kabaddi, popular in south Asia and made famous in this part of the world by Channel 4, has* a rule where if you didn’t successfully tag someone on your third consecutive advance into opposition territory then you were out. This game needed someone to run headlong into a mass of bodies and look to drag them wherever he wanted.
*Or at least had, I must admit it’s 25 years since I followed it seriously but a rule that actively discouraged excess caution sticks in the mind.
Dick was the one doing the driving as the game finally started to liven up at the tail end of the half. Seemingly there was an unspoken agreement that neither side would really begin to push it until one of them hit 20 points. The point guard, whose interview with Tony Leen of the Examiner is well worth a read, is in his third year with Tralee and his influence is only growing. He orchestrated a mini run that gave the Warriors the first lead of note in the game, up 7, with a couple of minutes left in the half.
That fortunately drew a response from Éanna as they stepped up the pace offensively. It had taken the guts of a half but we finally had two loaded sides looking to really attack each other. At the half, Tralee were up 24-26 but the real game, we hoped, had yet to really start.
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Zecevic, who had been having rotten luck with the iron, finally got one to go in off the rim inside to tie things up to open the second half. Wilson got the blue clad Éanna faithful going as he drew the sides level again on an and-1. Tralee are used to having the crowd heavily in their favour at home and even in neutral site situations like here but the Éanna faithful have never experienced a season like this. They have been waiting for their time to shine and the bodies came out to bring the noise.
It was bish-bosh stuff, both sides were now barreling at each other with regularity. It was a long way from good basketball but a step up at least from the snoozefest of the first 20 minutes. There was something to actually watch now. Donaghy thrives in such environments but he was also the spark of flair this game needed. Lying on the ground he managed a fine outlet pass to set Jonathan Lawton loose on a fast break, the American failed but Daniel Jokubaitis made the put back. Then Donaghy stormed down the floor himself before putting Eoin Quigley in for a dunk.
Life, this game had it, we had two talented sides realising they needed to take some chances and play some basketball. In turn, Éanna found a bit of fire down the stretch of the third through Wilson. His hustle through the closing minutes of the third was enough to give the Dublin club the advantage going into the final frame, 47-41.
For all his issues from the field, Zecevic was finding ways to influence the game. He was grabbing boards for fun, granted there were no shortage of opportunities, and was routinely getting to the line. That kept his accounting stats ticking over but he’s used to being far more clinical. The second chance fader he made, without looking, was far more of a flair play than is usually in his move set but he needed to get creative.
The other Serbian on Éanna’s roster, Marko Tomic, delivered the first double digit lead of the day, his deep ball moved the blue brigade into a 12 point lead. That, really was that. Tralee occassionally hinted at making some kind of a run but nowhere near enough to make anyone think they were going to win the game. An airballed free throw was the nadir. Éanna won, deservedly. They’ll happily take another win like this if it results in a maiden cup title at the end of the month.