The opening quarter removed any doubt about the result but Ireland’s first appearance in a EuroBasket qualifier since 2009 was a valuable learning experience that offered real promise for the future after a rotten start. Emmet Ryan reports from Amsterdam.
It’s a step up. Everyone knew it was going to be but you don’t know what that means until you take it. The first quarter at Sporthallen Zuid was a tough one for Ireland but an educational one too. The Dutch had a simple plan, use their size and experience to bring all the pressure they could in the Irish half court early. It was grim viewing for the first 6 minutes, with the result essentially decided in that spell, but how you get up after being hit matters when you are on the way back.
Ireland’s response was equally simple. The Dutch had disrespected them while dominating and that simply would not stand. If the Netherlands wanted to press high, then it better be ready for the Irish side to just go right over them and abuse the open space. Nobody on the Irish went into this campaign expecting to qualify for EuroBasket 2023, although hope would have been understandable, but that didn’t mean there aren’t goals. After 12 years away from the EuroBasket system, there’s some catching up to do.
The biggest goal of this campaign is to lay a foundation. In Dayna Finn, Rachel Huisjdens, and Claire Melia, a trio of players that took home medals at both European U18 and U20 B level are established as starters who can be plugged into this roster for the next four EuroBasket campaigns at a minimum. Sorcha Tiernan, similarly, is from that roster and should be around a long time as should Edel Thornton, who made a couple of trips to the NCAA Tournament in her college career. Of those five, only Tiernan didn’t start this game and get that direct experience of what the pace and tempo at this level is like.
There was a touch of anger in Melia’s game as she came out for the second quarter, almost in reaction to the heavy press from the hosts. She had some delightfully disrespectful reach ins to remind ball handlers who precisely they were up against and then, in the third quarter, casually lobbed in a sky hook.
Moral victories are the worst thing to hang on in sport, especially in Ireland, but it was good to see a little annoyance in the Irish side at the half that they only managed to tie the second quarter when they could have won it on the split. That change in attitude, that they could play at this level and belonged on the court with a side that almost qualified for the last EuroBasket, took less than a quarter to hit home. That’s the type of mental change that can take a full campaign to embed. Too see it turn around like this, in front of a packed, albeit far from hostile, road arena was nothing to sniff at.
The third proved even better than the second as the Irish defence continued to utterly frustrate the Netherlands. A Sorcha Tiernan coast to coast score was the undoubted highlight of a frame the visitors just plain controlled for the most part. A third quarter split of 15-20 meant Ireland had something tangible to point to.
While that might have spurred some hope of a big comeback from the travelling support for the final frame, that was never likely. It’s a 40 minute game and Ireland hadn’t done enough in the early minutes to stay in it as a contest. The fourth did however provide the cheekiest bit of basketball IQ from Edel Thornton as she inbounded off the back of an opponent to collect and score unopposed.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the last time Ireland had competed at EuroBasket qualification level was 2009. Many bad things happened after that and the last half decade has involved clawing up from the Small Countries grade. The youth teams that have come through since have been a beacon for what can happen but even they took a few cycles to get where they were. It’s going to take that time with senior hoops too.
– The arena in Amsterdam, Sporthallen Zuid, is certainly smaller than some Irish gyms but it might well be nicer than the lot. It’s a great layout to look at for inspiration for any clubs going forward.
– That said, our hosts missed one trick. It was their first game with fans in forever, they had a full house, but no merch stand? If I was a young Dutch woman coming here or an old Irish journalist, I’d have been jumping all over it if there was one.
– The other game in this group, which has received the group of death moniker in qualifying, saw Sunday’s opponents Czech Republic lose at home to Belarus. Both are traditional powers in the women’s game in Europe and both will expect to qualify for 2023. A bounceback game from the visitors on Sunday is one to watch out for.