Ireland ended a near three decade wait to complete a perfect 4-0 week and lift the trophy at the 2021 FIBA European Championship for Small Countries. Emmet Ryan was at the arena in Dublin to drink it all in
That night in 1994, I was 13 years old and didn’t even know the game was on but found it while channel flicking through the 14 stations (a huge number at the time) my parents had on the portable telly upstairs. Here was Ireland, in front of a loud crowd, beating Cyprus to win what was called the European Promotions Cup. All I really remember from the game was the Cyprus coach getting called for a technical and my mother downstairs wondering what I was roaring about upstairs. Oh, that and Ireland won.
27 years, 2 months, and 7 days later, seated on press row in that same gym, the crowd wasn’t there but the chance to see Ireland match that achievement was. The head coach on this night, Mark Keenan, was the captain all the way back in 1994. One of his assistants, Adrian Fulton, played alongside him and Fulton’s son CJ was starting point guard for this generation of Irish ballers.
The other assistant coach, Puff Summers, has no such connection but is a fascinating baller all in his own right. Comfortably one of the longest serving ‘imports’ in the league here, Summers has settled, married, has a family here, and had his own journey on the floor here that saw him go without a major honour for the bulk of his career before hitting a purple patch in his mid 30s, winning two national cup crowns either side of a Super League title.
The goal tonight was similar to the one back in 1994, and not just because a trophy was there to be had. Winning this would give the national programme the confidence to make the step up and compete with the big boys in European basketball, A trophy tonight, meant this generation and the ballers that followed them could dream of joining the fight to make it to Eurobasket.BallinEurope has a book, a real life actual book called I Like it Loud, and you can buy it on Amazon now. It’s here as a book and here in Kindle form.
That’s a whole lot of history and no shortage of pressure, especially after a week cooped up in the bubble. That Ireland had cruised past or crushed their opponents leading into this meant the form book was obvious but you just couldn’t help thinking of the history.
That playoff with Denmark back in 2005, with a shot at entering Europe’s A division at stake, which ended in heartbreak. The crush all comers start to this competition in 2016 that fell apart in the knockout rounds. Ireland has been in positions where it earned the right to be confident before, rare as they were, but the breaks didn’t always go this country’s way on the hardwood.
That Ireland’s first possession ended with a turnover that involved no pressure from Malta was not good for the nerves. CJ Fulton slightly missed John Carroll on a pass and the big man couldn’t control it as it went out of bounds.
Three straight stops on D, including two that fully drained the shot clock, settled the nerves before Carroll finally got the host nation’s opener. It took Ireland 4 minutes and 35 seconds to register their first lead of the game, through a Carroll lay-up, comfortably the longest they had waited all tournament.
Carroll, however, was determined that the early mix up between himself and Fulton would prove to be his last. In a crowded MVP race, mostly amongst his team mates, the Dubliner was out to make the final big statement. Out of the opening timeout, he stayed on the floor as Keenan opted for a three big line-up for the first time in the whole tournament, putting Will Hanley out there alongside Carroll and Jordan Blount.
They really just couldn’t make this all that easy for themselves. Malta had come with plenty of fight, despite seemingly opting against putting David Bugeja and Kurt Cassar into action. The duo had been involved in a scuffle on the Maltese bench the previous day and stood together away from their team mates during the anthems. Aaron Falzon had instead proved a one man army early on, recording 3 blocks in the first quarter and teaming up with his brother Tevin to keep the reigning champions in touch.
That’s when Ireland’s other prime contenders for MVP honours stepped up as Sean Flood and Jordan Blount linked up repeatedly on both ends to put a spark up the arses of their team mates. The lead hit double digits for the first time with 5.58 left in the half, again the longest Ireland had to wait all tournament but that barrier certainly made the side look like one confident it could kick on.
By halftime, the only question was whether or not Blount would get a triple double on the night as the result was beyond doubt and the Corkman had moved into pole position for MVP honours. To be able to have the MVP debate as the main discussion is a luxury that people covering Irish national teams just aren’t used to.
Hot damn it was worth the wait. Not having fans here reeked and it really was a privilege to be able to report on the games in person. All the same, getting the win that the sport has been waiting for since the senior national programs were reinstituted really meant a lot despite the ease with which it came.
I’ll write about what is to come next later in the week but, for now, it’s time to celebrate and it has been all too rare that people in this sport have been able to say that in Ireland. Blount just missed out on the triple double but no matter. The job was done. In the moments after, those that followed the live broadcast, the players got the floor to themselves. Jordan Blount screaming to his heart’s content and then finding the only Covid safe way to get a beer to me on press row, which was much appreciated. Kyle Hosford sitting on the hoop with the trophy in his arms.
It was all quite a bit much to take in. It was all quite wonderful.
In the day’s other game, San Marino beat Gibraltar to avoid the wooden spoon and confirm the final placings of:
1. Ireland (4-0)
2. Andorra (3-1)
3. Malta (2-2)
4. San Marino (1-3)
5. Gibraltar (0-4)
The silver for Andorra is their first medal finish since the 2016 edition, having failed to medal for the first time since 2002 at the 2018 tournament. Guillem Colom, broke the norm slightly as he won the MVP award which is quite the rarity for a player not on the champions at a FIBA tournament. San Marino’s fourth place finish is it’s third such finish in the last five tournaments. The bronze is Malta’s third such finish in the last six tournaments. Gibraltar now hold the longest active losing streak in the tournament at six games, going back to the 2018 tournament.