Ireland moved to 4-0 in the FIBA Europe U18 women’s division B championship with a comprehensive win over previously undefeated Great Britain in Dublin. Claire Melia and Bronagh Power Cassidy starred as Ireland locked up first place overall in Group D with a game still to play. Emmet Ryan reports from an emotional night for Irish hoops at the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght
This old house has plenty of memories but it’s not had many nights like this. The early cup finals brought some noise. The Promotions Cup win, with Liam McHale starring, in 1994 was something special, and then the what might have been win over Denmark in 2005. None of those occasions bore any resemblance to this. Here, the greatest generation of hoops in living memory for Ireland was met with support normally unseen for the sport here.
The nerves. Oh those nerves. A full house fell silent for the anthems, only rising to a roar as Amhrán na BhFiann concluded. This was the one we’d be waiting for all week and Dayna Finn’s opening lay-up followed by a defensive board by Claire Melia got the crowd rowdy early. There were tweets of support from Kenya and Thailand with people tuning in. The Green Army was spread far and wide to back this golden generation and the players weren’t letting them down early. Ireland roared out in front, with the visitors clearly intimidated by the raucous home support. While Claire Melia was locked down early on offence, the Monastarevin native found plenty of space to distribute and was wreaking havoc defensively. Bronagh Power Cassidy and Rachel Huisjdens carried the scoring load for the hosts as they took a 19-6 lead at the end of the first quarter.
While Great Britain may have been intimidated by the crowd, it’s safe to say the Irish team had never experienced anything like it either. Even the mass of bodies that saw them win their opener on Friday paled in comparison to this unending din, safe for free throws. Every score, every stop, was met with a roar. This corner has experienced some of the loudest crowds on the continent but there’s something different when it’s your own people bringing the noise. Ireland’s basketball community had answered the call and turned up in force. Dermot Russell brought his entire NABA academy along, all 35 odd of them, and he faced the rare challenge of finding an area where he could keep his group together. Gyms here are rarely so full and rarely so wild.
— Basketball Ireland (@BballIrl) August 8, 2017
The pace of scoring slowed but Ireland’s defensive supremacy was stifling the visitors through the early stages of the second frame. Irrational exuberance however was a clear issue for the Irish attack and that gave GB room to work with. Maria Lozzi was keeping her side relevant with her creative nous and solid defensive performance early, harrying the Irish ball carriers at will. Still, the visitors had only made 5 of their first 20 shots and being beaten up badly on the boards. Melia fed Louise Scannell for a vital make to get the Irish offence back on rhythm after the lead had dropped to 7.
Sorcha Tiernan made it a double digit advantage again as Ireland looked to put the hammer down as the half time break neared. This was a stronger and deeper opponent than any the home side had faced up to now but the approach was still the same, stamp on the neck early and keep the pressure on. The points kept coming as the seconds ticked by as did the defensive stops by Ireland. At the half Ireland led 37-23.
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And then breathe. Outside, where the threatening rain had still held off. Sarah Deegan had made the drive up from Limerick to watch Ireland. Deegan has a long association with the sport here and has a bit of a connection to GB as she was involved with UL Huskies while Great Britain Olympian Rachel Vanderwal plied her trade with the club. The atmosphere outside was far calmer than within. The ooh me nerves vibe from earlier had eased off.
Inside, Ireland remained in command. The lead hit 20 within 2 minutes of the re-start as Melia fed Power Cassidy to stretch it out. The crowd had taken a bit of a breather to absorb it all. With Ireland on top, thoughts were moving to the challenges that lie further down the line. This was anything but normal. Ireland, in general, is used to playing the role of plucky underdog but this side is far more familiar with contending at this level. When these players take the floor, they expect to win and not because of breaks that go their way.
A block by Melia brought the noise back as Britain struggled to get anything going on offence, being choked by the Irish D. The Irish stamped their authority on this quarter early with the visitors having near no joy from the field as the margin grew wider. With 10 minutes to play, this one was all but in the books. Ireland were on top 51-30.
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The gulf was giving Tommy O’Mahony the one thing he probably didn’t expect going into this clash, a chance to give his starters real rest. Melia was still logging heavy minutes but the rotations and switches were coming thick and fast through the final frame. The roar of Let’s Go Ireland, Let’s Go, filled the arena as the crowd looked to carry them through the final few minutes of action.
Britain however rallied hard to put some respectability on the scoreboard towards the end. With a vital game against Slovak Republic to come on Wednesday, the run could service as a vital confidence boost before the game to decide second place in the group.
The big plaudits however belonged once more to Melia. Finishing with 14 points, 15 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, and 1 block, the Portlaoise Panther had delivered another captain’s display.
Victory for Ireland 63-49. A place in the quarter finals and top spot is secured. Tomorrow is Ukraine. Friday could be insane.
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