It’s a payback clash for both sides preceded by a phoney war. Two teams separated by a river look to end their cup drought on Saturday night in Dublin as UCD Marian and Killester are both looking to put the past behind them
Nobody wants to be there, not a whole lot of people are, but there’s still business to attend to. A quirk of the calendar saw UCD Marian host Killester in the Irish Super League 7 nights and 1 hour before they would face off on the biggest stage in the sport here. The cup final, the one game that gets the nation’s attention, is still a week away on this night but the title race still has to get some attention.
Going in, Killester were a win out of first while defending champions UCD Marian were another game back. Neither could afford defeat and neither wanted to give anything away. There’s a battle for a major in the direct future and this is a distraction, necessary as it is, and both would rather be facing anyone else.
It’s hard to imagine Ioannis Liapakis wanted to be thinking about Killester that night. Moments after their semi final win over Belfast Star, the mind of the UCD Marian boss was drawn back to the prior year’s final.
“I couldn’t be more happy for these guys…we lost the cup last year through my mistake, stepping on the court, so it’s a great feeling to give them back what they lost last year from me,” he said.
A year ago UCD Marian were looking for a first cup title since 2011 and the game was tight entering the final moments only for Liapakis to be called for a technical foul in the dying moments, stepping onto the court albeit not directly interfering with action, to bellow instructions. The call led to outrage from ballers and fans alike on social media but, at least a year on, Liapakis sees it as being his fault for not being focused enough on what was necessary in the moment.
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Killester’s need to get something back, to make up for lost opportunity, is no less than UCD’s. That last cup win for Marian was over their Northside rivals in an epic 2011 comeback. The sting of that has long subsided by last March, on St Patrick’s day, it all came down to a single point. The pair had been neck and neck for most of the Super League season, eventually finishing on an equal record leading to a rare single game playoff for the title.
One made free throw at the end was all that separated champions from runners up. The man who would get called on the foul leading to Mike Garrow’s game winning make was Ciaran Roe. Anyone could have made the move but it’s apt that the player who almost single-handedly booked their place in this grudge match was the one who had that call go against him. In the semi-final, Roe was a beast with 34 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1 steal as the point guard carried his side past Tralee Warriors.
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Last Saturday night, well, it was a weird game that looked like both sides were being far too transparent in their shadow play. Marian got the W, 83-63, but neither team looked familiar stylistically. The victors looked and got a game with far more possessions than the defensively minded Liapakis normally goes with. Killester have more depth of scoring options, both in who and where, than anyone in the league but were far more conservative than usual in their choices even while the game was competitive.
Neither side was looking to lose but neither wanted to give anything away either. It’s trickery, feinting, and whatever other synonyms you want to throw out there. The only thing clear was that neither side wanted to give anything away ahead of a clash with all the narrative of the main event of Wrestlemania X7 but a real life need for victory.
Not that Killester coach Brian O’Malley sees it that way. Three days before the grudge match, he had a flat and simple answer when it came to whether there was motivation to get one over on UCD.
“No,” he said.
“I didn’t mean to be as blunt but you draw a line under those things. You watch the tape, you learn your lessons, you move forward. They got more points than us on the day. I don’t think any of our guys are looking at it as extra motivation. It’s a national cup final. If you need extra motivation, other than your job, then we’re in trouble.”
It’s a radically different looking Killester outfit to the one that lost the 2017 cup final. That side featured veteran big man Jermaine Turner at the 5 and was far more defensive stylistically. Now, it’s got an extraordinary array of shooters at this level.
“We’ve been lucky with the guys that have come in are good shooters and the guys that have developed through the club are, hopefully they’re all on form on Saturday,” said Killester captain Al Casey.
O’Malley, still only 34, has been there right through the adjustment. “That was a good team two years ago but it was a different style of play. This year’s group, it’s a different style. Our American is a guard, there are different personalities, and it’s about learning what we’re about.”
That quirk in the calendar certainly helped Killester’s education. While on the wrong end of a weird game, it got the players thinking about their focus.
“You’ve just got to put the cup final out of your mind going into a league game. We’re competing for three trophies. We prepared as if we were playing Marian whether it was the end of the season or the beginning of the season,” said Killester player Michael Westbrooks.
“It wasn’t like we were trying to hide anything or do anything special, we were trying to solidify ourselves in that league table.”
It’s a first season back for Westbrooks after three years living in Houston. Having been involved with the club all his life, his father Jerome is one of the all-time greats of the game here, adjusting back to playing competitive ball wasn’t easy.
“It was a bigger adjustment than I thought it was going to be. The three years away taught me not to take this for granted. Not having that opportunity when I was away, I knew that when I got back that I needed to take the opportunity.”
A statement of intent from @AlCasey7 and @irishwesty on this week’s Time Out show #BringItOn #HulaHoopsCup #LetTheGamesBegin @HulaHoopsIE @bie_basketball @KillesterBball @ballsdotie pic.twitter.com/GyYQh2dsnC
— Basketball Ireland (@BballIrl) January 24, 2019
The chance isn’t lost on UCD Marian’s players. Their lone cup triumph was that 2011 win over Killester. “We’re coming into the twilight of our careers…we’ve got 9 guys in their 30s now and you don’t know how many cup finals you’re going to get back to with guys retiring or getting injuries,” said Matt Kelly.
The loss at this stage last year still lingers for Kelly, who made the Irish squad last year that took bronze at the European championship for Small Countries.
“A lot of people focus on the dramatic ending and the controversy but the part that stings most, for me, is that we had a bad start to the game. People forget that we came out really flat, we could barely put the ball in the bucket. That’s something that really stays with you.”
As one would expect, Kelly isn’t reading anything into his side’s form against their north city rivals heading into Saturday’s decider.
“You can look at the league game from last week two ways. We had a 20 point victory so you could say we’re on top and in their heads but that’s certainly not the way I’d see it. They have added fuel, they’re going to come out gunning. They’re not dwelling on it but they haven’t forgotten it.”
The Irish men’s cup final is live on TG4 in Ireland and online around the world from 7.55pm Irish time/8.55pm CET/2.55pm EST on Saturday.
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