It was a ferocious battle in the National Basketball Arena as Poland and Ireland left everything on the hardwood in a bid to claim a spot in Europe’s top flight. It took every ounce of fight from both sides and gallons of sweat on the media tribune from BallinEurope’s Emmet Ryan but Ireland topped Poland to get promoted to a European A division for the first time in history. Our editor reports on one of the greatest nights of his life
Kids were pouring in over two hours before the opening tip wearing green t-shirts with ‘Melia 13’ on the back. Everyone outside chewing through cigarettes outside had the same question ‘Whaddya reckon about tonight?’ With youth tournaments it’s normal to get heavily focused on your own team. Future opponents only matter when they actually appear on the docket. Until then it’s not relevant. Well, except for Germany, everyone’s wondering about Germany.
Still, it wasn’t as tense as last night. There was that touch extra at stake there. Here, while there was still more to achieve, it felt a bit like gravy. The crowd was subdued until the intros, then the voices came back on another packed night in the National Basketball Arena.
Poland started off with some slick offence and rolled to a 7-0 run with ease before the hosts got on the scoreboard. A block by Claire Melia followed by an offensive board and put back score got the crowd going. If Ireland was going to win this, it would need its captain and fans to both go wild in Dublin. Midway through the first frame and Poland looked far from rattled. Tommy O’Mahony had to call in his troops down 12-4.
Julia Nielacna was getting everything she wanted on offence, the 6 footer ghosting into open space for easy finishes as the Poles pressed home their advantage. Through the first it looked like damage control for Ireland as the home team couldn’t even make wide open chances. Ireland had played sides that held a clear physical edge on them up to now but none of them had made their greater size count. Here Poland were well-marshalled on both ends of the floor, choking the Irish offence while finding ample room to create against a side that had dominated defensively through the prior six games. Harrying and hustling became the Irish strategy, looking to bring more heat on the ball carrier. It slowed the Polish offence considerably but the visitors still led 15-9.
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Ireland’s pressure was paying off as Poland suddenly found far less room to attack. This was some ugly ass basketball but it was paying off as the Poles struggled to create openings and Ireland dragged them into an alley fight. The scores were still hard to come by for Ireland but they were getting more opportunities count, enough to force a 7-0 run capped off by a Sorcha Tiernan three to give the hosts their first lead of the night.
Barbara Zieniewska made sure it was short lived but the home side had belief now and was in the scrap. Some sloppy ball security and soft travels however were hampering the Irish charge. The introduction of Bronagh Power Cassidy back into the game brought some much needed energy to the floor midway through the quarter. Her tenacity combined with some smart hustle by Rachel Huisjdens was making a fight of this one.
Melia went 4 from 4 from the line and then connected nicely with Dayna Finn to put Huisjdens in. It was still a battle but now the hosts were landing the scoring blows. Ireland led 28-23 at the half.
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Poland were first back on the floor and they looked resolute as they raced out. Ireland strolled out more casually, looking confident that they had this fight in them. The mental war was still waging while boths sides got ready to go back into combat.
Power Cassidy got the home side off to a flying start with a three as Ireland looked to put some breathing room between them and the visitors before the inevitable Polish fightback. Melia had switched to somewhat of a point centre role again, although not as obviously as against Israel, as she and Finn split the duties. Ireland were looking better on offence but, concerningly, Poland were making the floor more open. Ireland needed to keep this as a grit and grind battle because no lead would be safe if the Poles could set the tone.
A Finn score gave the hosts their first double digit lead of the game before the Poles stopped to think things over. Melia nailed another from deep and the crowd erupted once more. The visitors however stayed calm. They could see the floor was opening and that Ireland were still capable of some inefficiency in possession. Patience was the order for the Polish side as they began to claw back.
The damage started to show late in the quarter as Poland cut the deficit to 6 but Ireland were largely holding firm, going score for score with the visitors until another rally from Poland left Ireland only up 45-43 with 10 minutes to play.
10 minutes to decide a spot in the A division. The loser would get a second chance on Sunday but these two outfits could see the opportunity before them. A Finn three opened the scoring. The fans were on their feet again.
Natalia Klimek responded in kind. The Polish side wasn’t going to lie down for anyone. Having been rattled through the second frame, they had brought their battle faces in decisive moments of the game. Now it was whether Ireland could match them. Louise Scannell and Klimek traded scores. Not one inch was being given here.
Now was the time for tempered fire. Glory stood before them but there was still so long to go. Another timeout for Poland, as they trailed 55-51. Finn and Melia kept the scoreboard ticking over for the hosts. Pawing away at the visitors, looking to keep more than a possession between the sides.
Every foul call in Ireland’s favour was treated like a score. Every score like a victory in and of itself. This crowd, we’re not used to it in Irish basketball. The spirit of Italia 90 was filling fans of players who weren’t born until near a decade from those days. Huisjdens, Melia, Finn, Power Cassidy, names being lauded like they were Gráinne Mhaol, Sonia O’Sullivan, and Katie Taylor.
2.03 to play. Poland ball. A turnover. Finn draws the foul and goes down hard but she rises to head to the line. She’s breathing hard, winded from the fall. The first drops. So does the second. Ireland lead by 8. Poland timeout. 1.48 to play.
The Saw Doctors have a song called To Win Just Once. We used to be ok with one heroic effort but as Ireland came out of the time out this was a greedy nation. We’d beaten our neighbours to secure this seeding. We’d beaten Israel to secure this chance. Now we wanted to beat Poland to take it.
I believe that we will win swapped spots with Olé Olé. Then a miracle. The Polish coach draws a T. Melia to the line. It’s getting real. 1 minute and 32 seconds of basketball later it was real. Ireland, victorious. Ireland, promoted. Ireland, with a shot at a European title.
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