Hopes of an upset were dashed early in Dublin but Emmet Ryan still found plenty of solace as Hibernia Basketball went down at the hands of Bakken Bears
There are away fans in FIBA Europe Cup? Wow, didn’t see that coming. Bakken Bears had around 30 boisterous fans in Dublin for a game that carried with it a predictable air of inevitability.
This wasn’t a good day. Getting to the arena late for Ireland’s first game in a European club competition in 22 years only compounded it. The Danes were already 11-7 up and I started on my nutritious dinner of four apple latices and two bags of crisps. This is a glamourous job.
Even when the hot moments came, they were tinged with fear. Shawn Vanzant, who made it to two NCAA Championship games with Butler, looked nervous as he had the entire half-court to himself on the fast break before finishing a lay-up early in the third. Up to that point the Belfast Star man had ample reason to be wary. Bakken were delivering a beat down. The same type of drubbing this Hibernia side had experienced in Denmark, Slovenia, and Czech Republic in the preceding three weeks. The dream return to Europe hadn’t exactly been filled with hope up to now.
Vanzant and Lehmon Colbert are the only two full-time pros on the Hibernia roster. There are plenty of guys who have played pro but Conor Grace, the most experienced man on court for the Irish combo club, was working until 4pm the afternoon of the game before coming out to suit up in European action.
Bakken didn’t look like anything. They flat out were fitter, better, bigger, and more used to playing together. The downside of putting together an effective all-star team from the Irish league was that time playing together is limited. This team exists solely for this competition, that is ample motivation for the players but hard to get the public to buy in. That, along with the three drubbings that preceded this return to the big show and the poor weather, kept the arena well short of half full.
This wasn’t the marquee event Irish basketball was looking for. Press row had ample room and only a late flurry of activity saw the national press take notice. The national league and cup, most certainly the latter, ignites the public more. Here, this is where Irish basketball’s long road back to relevance becomes clear. The splendid isolation of an island that never interacts with its cousins on the court, outside of youth level, has shielded the top players in this league from the reality of what is out there on the continent. It also prevented them from getting used to taking on the better type of baller, a situation far less worrisome in the women’s game fortunately with ample back and forth between Ireland and the NCAA scene.
Michel Diouf, Carles Bivia, and Darko Jukic aren’t exactly names in Europe but in Dublin there were taking this Irish side to the woodshed. Oddly, the biggest concern for Hibernia before the game turned out to be far less fierce than first figured. Chris Christoffersen, Denmark’s tallest man at 7’2″ and a dude prone to being compared to the guy that was in Blade, wasn’t exactly the punisher in chief.
Yet still, somehow, there was hope on this drab Wednesday evening. Just seeing the banners for the FIBA Europe Cup along the driveway into the arena along with the decals on court reminded a visitor that somehow a nation in the absolute basement of European basketball had hustled its way into The Tournament Formerly Known As Eurochallenge (h/t Alex Chernykh).
On the floor there was an outbreak of dignity. Hibernia didn’t look like every actually threatening their visitors but forcing a timeout from Bakken in the second followed a run where the home side prevented this from being another horrific scoreline. It was still bad but staying within 20 was always the real goal here and the rag tag Irish side was keeping it together. Colbert and Grace kept battling while Vanzant grew in confidence. Baby steps, that’s all we could really expect.
With only two games left, both of which are academic at this stage, the focus will turn to the domestic season. The national cup will get plenty of interest this year as Demons look beatable, albeit still impressive, while Templeogue look to be a rising force. There lies the possible answer for next season. Whatever form this competition takes after the next round of the FIBA-ULEB conflict, Ireland could get a spot in next season but Hibernia needs to be consigned to memory. This club is a stepping stone back to a national side, now we need to put the onus on and support behind whatever side wins the national title. Will they progress beyond the group stage? Don’t be silly but a Templeogue or Demons at least has the local base to work with support wise and the advantage of players actually playing together regularly.
Hibernia lost tonight, they are almost certainly going to lose the next two Wednesdays, but even six shellackings can be something for the future. Having covered games in Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, Tel Aviv, and so many more places featuring the kings of Europe, here we were watching an Irish side playing on a stepping stone to that stage. That’s worth 0-4, 0-6, or 0-and a season to these players.