Sometimes you just come across a bad game of basketball but that can be a blip. The resurrection of top tier basketball in Killarney is moving along nicely, just for one Saturday there was a reminder of the work that is still ahead. In his second missive from the Kingdom of Kerry, Emmet Ryan watched St Paul’s take on Sligo All Stars
To non basketball people in Ireland, KIllarney being back is all that matters. They remember the name of the town with the start of the boom back in the 1970s and 1980s. What they don’t get is that the entity leading the resurgence is a different beast entirely with the youth aspect required to hang around in the modern era.
St Vincent’s was the club that made the town known with the sport, St Paul’s is the one reacquainting the Irish basketball public with the town. In their second year in Division 1, the second tier of hoops in Ireland, they had a spot in the promotion playoffs locked up before their home closer.
The visitors from Sligo are in a similar spot, also on the comeback trail after a rough few years. The Northwest of Ireland has a strong history in the sport and the All Stars, a name that really just begs teams to charge at you physically from the off, had a shot at joining Killarney in the post-season going into this one. They needed help elsewhere, for Limerick Celtics to beat Dublin Lions (the home club of Louisville signee and 2020 draft prospect Aidan Harris Igiehon) to join their Kerry hosts.
Not that you would have noticed it from either side at the start of the night. This was, for 30 minutes at least, a terrible game of basketball. Most of those involved on the floor would argue this corner is being kind but the fourth quarter was genuinely entertaining and exciting.
As in the challenge wasn’t big enough for Sligo, they came into this one without their import Zack Yonda who was missing with a personal issue. Killarney for their part were working off a reduced roster, with just 8 dressing, but it was obvious who was the show for the home side.
Ex Colgate Raider Sean O’Brien, with a name so Irish he basically had to play here, is a point guard who has a balanced game and was moving the ball well early. The power in the front court came via Papito Hersisia, a Dutchman whose size gave him a massive edge at this level.
For our analysis series The Ballin After, post-game interviews, and more, subscribe to BallinEurope’s YouTube channel
Despite missing Yonda, Sligo looked comfortable on the floor from the off and were organised at both ends. The All Stars, like their hosts, just had an allergy to making buckets. The two sides weren’t even making bad shooting choices, their execution just had the sniff of pre-season than late season as the visitors came out of the first up 17-19.
The town is really quite fascinating. Right off the bus, a newcomer gets a shock. There’s a Nike factory store right there, well stocked and really not what you expect from a town of 15,000 people.
It’s across from the Official Kerry GAA Store, a reminder of the challenge for Killarney that night. While the GAA and basketball have a largely amicable relationship, with plenty of players participating in both, the former was an inadvertent headache for the home side this night.
Kerry’s county Gaelic football team had a big league game up the road in Tralee that night. That was a drain on the crowd. Added to that was the small matter of Dr Crokes, the local GAA club, playing in the All Ireland club final the next day against Corofin from Galway. That’s a lot to compete with.
That’s why in an arena which is normally slammed with around 800 fans, there was plenty of room for the 300 or so who showed up. The timing was out of St Paul’s hands. Had Crokes not made it to the club final, that Kerry game would have been the next day in Killarney rather than clashing with their final home game of the year.
Inigo Zabalo was a small dude doing a big job for Sligo inside as they needed a heap of help to start the second. While still not lighting up the scoreboard, Killarney were going to work as Hersisia started filling up the book.
As Sligo fell into a bit of a hole, the Dublin Lions finished up winning big against Celtics. The All Stars wouldn’t have known at that stage but the stutter in their play was eerily timed. They stuttered badly and went in down 42-36 at the half.
The sponsor on the Sligo jerseys, well, not the main one which is EJ a menswear store but the secondary one Orreco has big ties to basketball but further afield. A bit west to put it mildly.
BallinEurope now has merch, like actual merch, t-shirts, phone covers, and even pillows. Check it all out on our RedBubble page.
The company, founded out of the local IT in Sligo and now based in Galway, had a front page profile in the sports section of the New York Times for its work with the Dallas Mavericks. Sportstech is a big deal in Ireland and Orreco is amongst the bigger deals. That a company working with the Mavs is ‘amongst’ rather than the undisputed biggest deal tells you all you need to know about the sector here.
We finally got a spurt of actual basketball to start the third as the visitors ripped off an 11-2 run to open the second half. It was badly needed as the scoreboard was hiding just how many possessions were in this game. A Connor McClenaghan dunk punctuated the run and forced an early timeout from the home side.
It was a really weird one to watch. The energy was there from the players and both teams were playing a heavily offensively oriented game but part of it had to be the weird environment. St Paul’s already knew their playoff situation and you could tell both sides were used to playing in front of a bigger and hotter crowd. That’s as good an explanation as could come to mind for the offensive issues but Killarney managed to put a halt to Sligo’s surge to finish the frame up the minimum, 56-55.
While killing time in the Nike store on Sunday morning, I was surprised to hear someone call me. It was Andrew FItzgerald of St Paul’s, lamenting the quality of the game as much as the result. It was St Patrick’s Day so he wasn’t dwelling on it. He’d run into me in Killorglin the two days later for their game with Maree.
Fitzgerald fits the bill of what you want from a baller in a league like this. He wants to win, he hates losing, but he also realises that this game is supposed to be fun. Winning isn’t anywhere near as good craic with a clunker compared to a cracker. Nobody had all that much fun on that Saturday night, well until afterwards, but at least the last 10 minutes gave those in the stand what they needed.
There was so much iron in this game but the people had turned out to watch basketball and they really got some in the final 10 minutes. O’Brien hit a nice crossover to finish inside early in the fourth to send a signal that this was about to get watchable.
Sligo were giving as good as they got but another nice move by the Colgate man tied the teams at 64-64. It got end to end in a hurry but Sligo started landing more, a lot more. Oisin O’Reilly hit a lovely spinning fadeaway to put the visitors up 9 before Cian Brockman made it an 11 point lead with under 3 minutes on the clock.
Then Big Papi went to work as Hersisia scored twice either side of a Mark Greene bucket to make this one a real fight down the stretch. Killarney got it town to a 3 point deficit. They needed a stop, they got it.
On the next possession O’Brien opted for a two. Killarney needed luck with the foul, they got it as Jesus San Martin went 1 of 2 at the line. There was one chance left for the home side. A floater from O’Brien, and no good. Sligo closed without a spot in the playoffs but a win 79-81.
It’s easy to see why Fitzgerald was down about the quality of the game given how quickly St Paul’s have done what they have. They’re a real promotion contender to the top flight of Irish hoops within two years of deciding to go back to senior basketball. They’ve got buy in from the town and this is a town that knows how to enjoy itself.
That evening, despite the rain, the pubs were hoping. Scott’s Hotel, the team sponsor, was no exception as a couple of pints were enjoyed by this corner before an early enough night. The next morning, the skies were clear and Kerry, pretty much wherever you go, is glorious when it’s sunny.
The parade started and crowds lined the streets for the 53 floats, with visitors from all over. After a while, it was back to the bus stop. It was time to head to Killorglin while Killarney had a playoff to think about.
To keep up to date with everything on BiE, like BallinEurope on Facebook