After the wildest season in living memory, it all came down to one game added on to the end of the season. Killester and UCD Marian had survived the road here but it was all going to be for nought for one. Emmet Ryan on how UCD Marian emerged to win the Irish men’s Superleague.
Before the cup final, this was UCD Marian’s league to lose. They’d opened up a two game lead and looked good for the run-in but then the slide hit. Two losses in three games and suddenly it was wide open. Then UCD went and beat Tralee Warriors in an apparent league decider, only to drop their next one away to Belfast Star.
That led to a nuts final week. With Storm Emma and the Beast from East led to an absolutely bonkers scenario. Four teams on five losses and one on six entering the final week of action. No tie breakers, to win it all you had to finish above them all. Templeogue fell first, to Killester. Swords dropped to seven losses a night later against UCD Marian. Tralee, still on five losses, went to Templeogue and dropped to six after an overtime stunner.
That left UCD needing a win in Moycullen and Killester needing a pair over DCU Saints and Éanna. Both title contenders, after blinking so often, held their nerve through the weekend to send this season to an extra week. On St Patrick’s day, barely an hour after Ireland’s rugby team had claimed a Grand Slam, two sides from either side of the Liffey were going to battle it out to decide the biggest prize in Irish men’s basketball.
Scott Kinevane and Ciaran Roe shared a few quiet words in good spirits early as Mike Garrow opened the scoring from the line. It’s hard to find two more different point guards in this league. Kinevane is nose down defence first type of ball-handler whereas Roe is the more pure pass and shoot variety. Whereas Rowe is his own beast for Killester, Kinevane splits time with a similarly minded 1 in Barry Drumm.
There was more pop in the Killester offence in the early going but Marian were grinding through as both sides looked hungrier than usual offensively. With both teams having established serious defensive credentials throughout the season, there was an urge to search for cracks.
As in common with games in the National Basketball Arena, execution was lacking through the first few minutes of the affair. Players say the rings here are tight but there were nervy lay-ups not even tasting iron on both sides. When Killester opened up a 6 point lead, it felt like a legitmate advantage even in the first quarter. They had gone on a slow 12-2 run to put serious pressure on the Students. Having been the other side in the title conversation for the bulk of the season, the North Dublin club had come here to play.
A three from Roe made it 19-10 with 2 minutes left in the first, finally forcing Ioannis Liapakis to call in his troops. Even Matt Kelly’s three on the subsequent possession pointed to the issues for UCD. He barely beat the buzzer under pressure as Killester made the court look oh so tiny. UCD were living off scraps, relying on Killester making unforced errors to gain extra possessions here and there. Just shy of the break, Conor Meany drew a three-shot foul off Paddy Sullivan. He made two to put some order on the score but Killester looked more than good for their 23-16 lead after 10 minutes.
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Liapakis was clearly letting the stress get to him. Having sat down smiling before the start of the second, it took one blown offensive possession for him to kick his chair back towards the bleacher. The Killester D, was still a riddle.
Brian O’Malley on the other bench had cause for calm. The only issue to bother him was the rate at which his side was the couple of cheap fouls his side gave up early in the frame. Otherwise the pressure and spacing was right the way he wanted it.
The first timeout of the quarter saw the roles almost reversed. Liapakis was relaxed as he gave the instructions whereas O’Malley’s assistant Mark Grennell laid out what he wanted with furious intensity. The gap hadn’t changed but the brain trusts were trying to think a few possessions ahead of one another.
Neil Baynes was coming up big in the second for Marian, drawing contact and getting results. UCD were starting to find some holes to work with but Killester still had far more going on offence as a Royce Williams three emphasised their control.
By the next timeout it was Liapakis with more of a grimace. The instructions were more direct, the body language more vibrant. O’Malley looked to be just keeping his charges calm. The lead was holding but, more importantly, Killester were preventing any kind of a storm.
Garrow got to work to eat into the lead before Dan James brought it within a possession. The spark had come from that last trip to talk it out and UCD were running in wide open space. Kinevane called his own number to tie it up on a lay-up and draw the and-one. The free throw bricked and Killester had a chance to draw breath. At the half, the sides went in level at 36 apiece.
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The third opened with straight up shadow boxing. Under committed possession met under committed possession before Garrow got the scoring underway off a fast break, UCD’s first lead since early in the first. Both sides had reputations for big third quarters, where they’d usually break a game open right out of the break. The fear of what the other could do was evident from the caution on the floor.
Killester ran off a quick 7-0 run ot move back in front. Conor James, the brother of Stephen on the floor, was working as assistant to Liapakis and making his voice heard more as he emplored UCD to get more active on defence. Luis Filberto Garcia Hoyos was creating second chance opportunities for Killester and stunting Marian’s efforts to speed up the game.
While Killester looked the sharper, they couldn’t shake the Students as a Conor Meany three kept thoings tight down the tail end of the third. With 10 minutes to go, in the season, it was Killester in front 49-48.
The lead was exchanged quickly to open the fourth with Killester giving up a couple of frees earlier than they’d like. A Meany three and Marius Markowicz lay-up briefly gave UCD a two-possesion lead before Royce Williams rocked one in from deep.
Nothing had been able to separate five teams for most of the season, there was no reason to expect anything to put air between these sides. Williams and Drumm exchanged threes as the offensive heat that was lacking in the third came out with power in the final frame.
Rodrigo Garcia Ruiz tied things ups from deep but Killester’s foul trouble wasn’t going away. Roe and Sullivan were both on four. With 6.25 left, O’Malley called in the troops to think things over. Sullivan gave Killester back the lead from line midway through the frame as the play briefly dropped down a touch. Garcia Ruiz pushed the lead to 4, which seemed a whole lot more in context and Liapakis called in his guys.
Sullivan fouled out as he sent Meany to the line. Roe and Baynes, who had also moved to four, remained on the floor This one was beyond tense as the slightest errors seemed game changing. Meany put the Students in front with a fadeaway banker. Even the refs were getting stressed with the scorers’ table. A Garrow move inside and the lead was three going into the last minute.
Meany with the steal. A monstrously important possession. Ruiz with the steal, Kinevane takes it back, eventually a shot clock violation and Killester ball with 25.1 seconds on the clock. Timeout.
Roe nails it from deep on the second chance opportunity. Tie game again. 12.1 seconds to go. Timeout UCD Marian and Liapakis flings a chair backwards again.
Roe fouls Garrow. That was Roe’s day done. Garrow makes the first. A lead. The second clanks. Killester recovery. Williams gets a shot off but it’s no good.
70 years after UCD basketball club was founded, 50 years after Marian basketball club was founded, 40 years after their last title, UCD Marian climbed the mountain top.
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