This was a masterclass from the Greek school of coaching as Ioannis Liapakis saw his UCD Marian side tear high flying Belfast Star apart in the Irish cup semi finals. Emmet Ryan reports from a terrible beauty in the Mardyke.
He’s listed at 6 foot, that’s more than debatable, but at 16 years of age CJ Fulton is undeniably one of the greatest offensive weapons in Irish basketball. The son of legend, and Belfast Star coach, Adrian, he won the starting point guard slot for a team on the rise after a slew of injuries and has kept it his throughout. Last year, in the Under 16 schools cup final he went off from deep in a 15 three barrage. This was a whole other challenge. The reigning league champions were standing between his Star team and a place in the Irish senior cup final.
UCD Marian haven’t exactly been playing like defending champions. Their up and down form has them two games out of first place in a packed title race but they’ve managed to get some big results along the way, despite some unexpected losses, and retained a strong line-up heading into this one. The only absentee of note, centre Neil Baynes who was half-way across the world being best man at a wedding.
Early on it was the Mike Garrow show, the American shooting guard who works in healthtech in his spare time, scored 7 points in the game’s opening 2 and a half minutes as the students roared into an early lead. Despite the free scoring from their offence, the style wasn’t exactly what coach Ioannis Liapakis dreamed of. He’s a classic Greek coach, likes to keep the pace down and bring intensity on defence. He is however a pragmatist, like a lot of Greek coaches, and down a big it wasn’t a bad idea to go with a running game at the start.
There’s the Greek approach we were waiting for. An 8 second violation forced on Belfast as Liapakis had his side slow this one right down. Patiently they stretched out the lead to 10 points. Belfast had gone big, bringing in legit 7 footer Mike Thiep, but weren’t able to use him to create any real kind of space inside. Fulton switched back to a smaller line-up tp close the quarter. Defensively the impact was immediate as they closed the open gate UCD had been walking through to score. A Conor Johnstson three was the only extra luck they had in the final 2 minutes offensively however as Marian held a 22-14 lead after 10 minutes.
Cameron Jackson came in for Garrow in the import slot for UCD to start the second and the Students stretched their lead to 12 with a heavy small ball line-up. Matt ‘Matty Guns’ Kelly and Barry Drumm were both in alongside Conor Meany leaving Aidan Dunne as the nominal big on the floor. The Brazilian style shooting of Belfast, willing to put it up from basically anywhere, was a threat to Marian as Star’s Conor Quinn got a little hot streak going.
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CJ Fulton came back in to add a bit more pace to the Belfast line-up as they looked to counter UCD’s small-ball game. Garrow was back on to counter for the Belfield boys, offering more range in shooting, as both coaches dialled up the adjustments. Star are used to high scoring games, they are happiest when a game has a heap of possessions. Liapakis had his side forcing that pace down and it was working nicely.
The grinding game was forcing errors from Belfast as UCD kept chipping away, building a lead gradually. Quinn got phased on an out of bounds pass. Slovenian Mark Berlic got called on goaltending. The lead gradually hit 13 as Garrow screened Mike Davis hard before rolling in for the finish.
Fulton went big again to try and get something different out of the line-up and Thiep drew and easy foul off JJ Vall Llobera open up the paint a touch. With the room, Sergio Vial was wide open for a three but Marian were happy to take advantage of the holes left at the other end as they kept the scoreboard ticking over. Tactically it was a quandary for Belfast. Go big, and the D is dire. Go small, and the scoring dries up. At the half, they were still stuck thinking. UCD led 50-37.
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Fulton entered the second half still looking to get his first shot off. The older UCD guards had completely bottled him by wisely going with a heavy pressure game right in his face. There simply weren’t openings for him in the first 20 minutes and now he was entering a third quarter with his team needing to find something to get them going. The suffocating UCD defence was still working nicely as they stretched their lead to 17 early in the third. Davis opened Star’s account from the line as Fulton consulted with his father.
The errors kept on coming from Belfast. Even when they got the right break, they found a way to hurt themselves. A softly won turnover led to a not so fast break and eventually an errant pass out of bounds. The next possession, they managed to throw it out again. Even with the guts of a half to go, they were making life needlessly difficult.
There was a drop in intensity through the middle of the third. The type of scenario that Belfast needed. While trailing big, they needed time to get their composure back. Marian weren’t doing anything offensively so Star could afford to take time to find something that worked. With 4.40 left in the frame, Fulton finally got a shot off. His effort at a three rimmed out but at least he was finally seeing something.
Through the lull, Marian kept their lead comfortable. Liapakis had no reason to panic, even if his side was anemic in the half court. An entirely accidental ankle breaker by Meany on Paddy McGaharan led to them finally ending a long drought.
A returning Vidal gave Belfast something to shout about as he cut the lead below the half-time mark late in the frame from deep. His personal 7-2 run got some competitive fire back at the tail end of a far from electric quarter. Marian kept their cool however and led 64-51 going into the last 10 minutes.
Quinn opened the fourth with an open three. As had been the case throughout the prior half hour, it didn’t rattle the reigning league champions. The frustration grew quickly and Fulton drew a technical, Belfast’s third of the game. The natural arc for their comeback campaign was to make it to a cup final, they’d been typically barely above relegation level in recent years. Here was a side clearly on the rise with ambitions of silverware and their shot at the first trophy of the season was slipping quickly.
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Garrow fed Vall Llobera for an easy lay-up to push the lead to 19 and Fulton Sr had to call in is troops early in the quarter. That felt like all she wrote. The lead hit 20, the pace disappeared in short order. Cries of ‘keep playing’ came from the Marian bench so they wouldn’t throw it away in the last 5 minutes, but this was the end of a business trip. Vall Llobera was able to pad his stats, picking his shots as the intensity evaporated.
While not one that will be remembered for its aesthetics, this was a beautiful game for those who like intelligent hoops. Marian had their early bit of fun but after that it was a methodical display of every Greek coach’s fantasy. The heart was ripped out of Star one vein at a time until Belfast’s bleeding corpse could muster no more. The final moments were nothing more than a death march. UCD Marian advance, 91-63, back in the final for the third time in five years and second in a row.
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