Ireland opened their account on night one of the FIBA European Championships for Small Countries by winning a lively encounter over Andorra. Emmet Ryan would have settled for a damp squib of a game, he was just happy to be back courtside in person.
The second half of Malta’s win over San Marino was well under way by the time I made it to press row at the National Basketball Arena. The slight delay to the end of the 18 month wait was caused by a day job commitment that I couldn’t shift, even on my week off. No matter, the Sammarinese were lively but wholly outmatched by their opponents.
All they could deliver was entertainment and speed. A speed I hadn’t felt in a long time. There was plenty of hoops on TV and streaming services since the sport paused in March 2020, longer for some than others, but a screen can’t truly relay the ferocity of pace that hits you when watching a game close up.
20 minutes until tip and it was feeling real now. Warm ups going at a furious pace. The, mostly, young Andorra squad at the hoop near press row. Around half the Irish roster had played organised basketball the past year, in a mix of locations, while the rest were going to be getting their first real test in the next few minutes.
The Irish roster has the most bigs and the tallest single player in the tournament, Jason Killeen, but opted to go more small ball early on. The combination of CJ Fulton, Sean Flood, and Lorcan Murphy made for a speedy unit to work off the bigs of Jordan Blount and John Carroll. Mark Keen has options here to play a big heavy line-up this week but clearly he was determined to keep things quick.
In Carroll, Blount, Killeen, and Will Hanley, Keenan has four bigs who are likely to have to log serious minutes between them over the four games in six days. Behind them, there’s nobody above 6’4”. That’s still deeper up front than all the teams they are going to line out against in Dublin but the smart call is not to wear them out too early in the week.
The first quarter, understandably, was fairly fast paced with Carroll feasting in the paint as he used his bulk to open things up. The younger Andorra side however could match Ireland for pace and kept it frenetic while trying to force openings.
This was fun and the subs were at an almost hockey pace with 21 of the 24 players dressed appearing in the first quarter. After 10 minutes, Ireland led 29-23.
— Basketball Ireland (@BballIrl) August 10, 2021
Oddly it wasn’t until early in the second quarter of the game that I noticed the squeaking, the definitive sound of the sport more than the bounce of the ball. It all comes back to you.
Murphy had probably his quietest bunch of scores in the last few years, including pre pandemic, as he was businesslike early but there he was, with 4 minutes left in the half. Air Lorcan took flight to put Ireland up by double digits. After 20 minutes, Ireland led 57-45.
Having seen less than 2 halves of basketball over two games, and not having seen one of the sides in the competition yet, it already felt like Sunday’s game between Ireland and Malta would be a final. That’s the odd nature of a straight league tournament. Granted, the fixtures were set in a way that would set up the most likely effective final but the balance of play from a tiny sample meant it seemed a cert already.
Ireland’s perimeter D could do with some work by then. Andorra were 9 of 18 in the first half from deep, 8 of 13 in the second quarter alone. It shouldn’t really be a shock that teams from southern Europe are going to try and rain from the outside.
The interior D was proving much more effective, with Ireland’s combination of size and speed a pain for their smaller opponents. Big man fills the paint, smaller man comes over to close off an avenue of escape, and pain for Andorra. Simple but delicious for any coach when it works.
Through three and it was a fait accompli. Ireland up 78-60 and it was going to take a real shock from Gibraltar in Wednesday’s opener against Malta to make anyone think it wasn’t all coming down to Sunday.
Blount and Carroll both hit their double double marks as Ireland staggered to the finish slightly. They were never in any danger but the drop in precision for the final 10 minutes was to be expected. This game had been hot from the off and maintaining that to the death was unlikely.
The final margin, a 96-80 win for Ireland, was comfortable but not to the point that the roster will treat this as a stroll until Sunday.
All the same, it sure was nice for the first game back in person to be a win for the boys in green.