Ireland were pushed to the brink by a speedy Israel side but, once more, Claire Melia played a captain’s role to carry her side to an historic victory in the quarter finals of the FIBA Europe U18 Women’s division B championships in Dublin. On a night where he was more goosebumps than man, Emmet Ryan reports from a loud and tense National Basketball Arena. A first ever Division B semi-final for Ireland but they had to do it the hard way
It was a nervy start in a hot and sweaty arena. The third quarter final of the day pitted two sides who know how to makes stops and each had plenty of respect for the opposing D. Ireland held the size advantage but Israel’s pace was clear from the outset. This was going to the be a game where adjustments proved vital, as would the crowd. The opening blows went Ireland’s way, getting the raucous home support involved early. First came Rachel Huisjdens with the inside make followed by the bonus, then a three by Dayna Finn, before Claire Melia made it an 8-0 run from the line. Ireland were looking to put the hammer down early.
Israel quickly settled but Ireland were still bringing the heat on D and taking advantage of perimeter space on offence. That enabled Ireland to drive often and force Israel into foul trouble early in the quarter. The nerves were still visible on both sides. The visitors were getting beaten up badly on the boards but when they got open, Israel made it count. By boxing out Melia, Israel were able to bring more pressure on Ireland’s possessions. It wasn’t exactly a new strategy in this tournament but it was actually working in this one. The turnovers however were coming thick and fast, and it was Israel forcing mistakes from the home side. With 6 of their roster having played in the A division last year, Israel were looking for that experience against top tier opposition to count in a crunch game. At the end of the first they look to have settled, only trailing 18-16.
The Irish D was lacking the aggression from earlier games, perhaps wary of what was at stake here. The advantage on the boards was concealing a wariness of testing Israel on the ball. Withy the Israeli interior D looking increasingly strong, scores on both ends were proving hard to come by. The small band of Israeli supporters were more than playing their part. The group of about 30 were in full song as the visitors tried to reignite their offence.
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Bronagh Power Cassidy, who had been racking up scores for fun up to now was having trouble finding her shot. Tommy O’Mahony needed to settle his charges down badly and a comfortable inside make from Melia certainly did’t hurt. Melia started to adopt a more point-centre role. If Israel were going to box her out, O’Mahony wanted to free up space for his other options out there. Melia found Power Cassidy inside for the make and the plan looked to be bringing pressure on Israel’s D.
The visitors however were finding their feet on offence and Shir Tirosh brought the sides level for the first time since the start with just under 4 minutes to play in the half. Hadar Hadad gave Israel the lead for the first time a minute later. It was the first time Ireland had trailed in the whole tournament. A pair of threes from Nikol Mihailetz added to the advantage before a late rally from the hosts. At the half it was the visitors on top, Israel led 33-31.
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The visitors has stopped the bleeding on the boards. While Ireland still held a healthy advantage in that regard, Israel had basically been toe to toe with the home side since the start of the second quarter. Where Israel were still struggling was Ireland’s size. The fouls kept coming and that was forcing the visitors to sit some key bodies, including Offir Kesten Raz who picked up her fourth early in the third. Ireland re-took the lead off a 12-0 run as their size proved telling. The combination of Power Cassidy, Huisjdens, and Melia, were largely neutralising the hot pace being set by Dor Saar for Israel.
From a timeout Israel were able to settle and cut down Ireland’s lead. The home side was finding more room on the inside but was proving profligate. Sharvit picked up her fourth foul late in the quarter and suddenly Israel were playing with fire, keeping two players on the verge of fouling out on the floor as they sought to erase Ireland’s lead before the final frame. With 10 minutes to play, Ireland were back on top 49-46.
Despite getting the better of the early exchanges to start the fourth, Ireland’s ball security woes came back to bite them on offence. Too often Israel were gifted possession and Ireland’s dire shooting from deep certainly wasn’t doing them any favours. After giving Melia a break early in the fourth, O’Mahony had seen enough and brough his captain back in.
The different battles on the floor were reminiscient of Turkey’s win over Finland at the 2014 World Cup. Turkey dominated on the boards and got to the line far more often, whereas Finland did far more from deep and looked better at looking after the ball. That game went to OT and neither side looked like it wanted to have to sweat through an extra 5 minutes at the end of this.
Sensing the need for support, the crowd got loud again. Ireland were up 6 but this was far from done. Shirelle Berman cut throught the noise to make a lay-up. O’Mahony called his troops in again with 3.28 to go, knowing this was going to likely come down to just a couple of possessions. Saar beat the buzzer to cut the gap to 2 and the small but vocal Israeli support got on their feat before Maeve Phelan finally got Ireland a 3 to stretch it out again.
Finn hit a mid range jumper and suddenly the lead was 7 entering the final minute. Whatever O’Mahiony has said, it was settling this squad just when they needed cool heads. The Olé Olé chants filled the arena. The job was done. History was made. A semi-final with Poland awaits. The job now is clear. Win one of the next two and promotion is Ireland’s.
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