It was the Ciaran Roe show as the Killester point guard had a 34 point night to see the Dublin club to the Irish Cup final. Emmet Ryan looks back on a night where the smallest man on the court embiggened his team in the face of a ferocious fightback from the Tralee Warriors
It’s about a 1 hour 45 minute drive, with good traffic, from their Kerry home to the Mardyke but, make no mistake, this arena was East Tralee and nobody was surprised. Even before tip in the preceding game, over two hours before this one started, the announcer had begged people to make as much room as possible in the bleachers. The Warriors fans had travelled in numbers looking to replicate the most intense atmosphere in Irish basketball. The drums were banging loudly in warm-ups as the officials at the door played Tetris in order to fit everybody they could in. Even David Clifford, a Kerry Gaelic footballer and one of the biggest names in Irish sport, had to settle for standing on the balcony.
The club, a combined project between two junior clubs St Brendan’s and Imperials, brought big time basketball back to the Kingdom after nearly a decade in the wilderness. Spearheaded off the court as much as on by Kieran Donaghy, a former Gaelic Footballer of the Year, they had tasted plenty of success in their three years back with the end of season Champions Trophy becoming a near permanent resident in the town.
Riding high in the league, they were in the semi-finals for the first time in history against a Killester club that has seen all of this before. League runners up a year ago and finalists in this competition the previous season, the orange and black had some serious heritage in their line-up. Michael Westbrooks, back from three years living in the US, is the son of Super League legend Jerome while Alex Herreros is the son of all-time leading ACB scorer Alberto and that’s a man who knows how to make a big moment (go to 3.55 in this link for the last shot of his career…in the ACB Finals).
You can always tell that main event feel. In every practical way, this game was of equal importance to UCD’s win over Belfast earlier in the day but with Thunderstruck blaring and the crowd ready to absolutely blow, this was the big ticket. This was the game the people needed to see and they needed the wait to end badly.
Killester had the better of the opening exchanges but a three by Donaghy, the Star, brought the crowd to life. The scoring was slow enough with both sides happy to play it physical inside and not force a hard pace. Amidst the paint heavy struggle, Royce Williams was coming up trumps by and large while Ciaran Roe was the only guard finding any joy. It gave Killester the first lead of note in the game but didn’t silence the Tralee kettle drums at the far end of the court.
The black and orange defence was stifling Paul Dick. The well travelled and vastly experienced point guard was fine with his handle but just kept finding walls in the half-court. The interior D of Tralee wilted in the tail end of the frame as Herreros opened his account and Killester took a double digit lead. The depth chart on both sides were ludicrous by this league’s standards but it was the Dublin club that appeared to have more options to turn to offensively. Dusan Bogdanovic was single-handedly keeping Tralee relevant as Roe went on offensive tear to end the quarter. Just like that, Killester had blown a big hole open to lead 29-13 after 10 minutes.
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Keith Jumper, nicknamed Geansaí*, got a bit of a roar for a dunk early in the second but the crowd was clearly not back yet. Just as it looked like Tralee was starting to shut things down defensively, Roe hit them with a floater. Even when they got to him, Tralee found a way to let him hurt them. Dick blocked a weaksauce three ball from Roe as it barely left the under-sized guard’s hands only for Darragh O’Hanlon to immediately foul Roe. Andrew McKeever turned the subsequent possession into a three.
*Geansaí is the Irish for sweater but we call sweaters jumpers. I have an American ex who had truly couldn’t stand this even after three years living in Ireland.
The pace had really picked up after the feeling out period before Killester’s big run. Tralee players were hitting the floor on nearly every go round on D. Darran O’Sullivan, a fellow multiple All Ireland football champion with Donaghy, came in to run the point as Pat Price tried to make any kind of inroads. A falling jumper from Jumper got a far bigger roar than his earlier dunk. The travelling masses from Tralee could sense the extra step in this game and that now it was really cooking.
The calls started coming Tralee’s way as did the breaks. There was still a heap of work to do but life had been restored to the side. Jordan Evans brought it back to single digits from deep inside the final minute of the half, his first score of the game, and the Tralee fans were rocking. Roe was still doing his Juan Carlos Navarro thing to ensure Killester didn’t dry up entirely.
Bobby Dixon preaches heart over height, Roe is more of a Clarence Beeftank but with a touch more speed. He’s got the shoulders of a substantially larger man and he wisely uses them to create space.
Killester took a 43-32 lead into the break.
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There was a din from the off to start the third. Tralee needed a big quarter and both sides got tighter on the interior. It led to six straight possessions getting stuffed before Al Casey opened the scoring and then Paddy Sullivan got to work. He made a wide open three with the crowd at his back before getting to the line to push Killester into a 16 point lead once more.
It wasn’t enough to rattle Tralee, the comeback kicked off again and it was back to single digits by the mid-point of the third. Roe, once more, proved the man to give Killester a break. He drew an offensive foul off Jumper to halt the run and then made a short-ranger to bring him up to 20 on the night.
Jumper was mad. Plucking a Roe pass out of the sky, he wanted to go after anything that moved. He was like an offensive lineman screening Roe to free up Dick for an effort from deep and then rolled nicely to free the lane for Fergal O’Sullivan. The gap was back to 6, the tightest since the first quarter. A floater inside and he turned to the crowd because he wanted to hear them more. It was a two steps forward one step back kind of comeback but the Warriors were alive going into the fourth, down 56-48.
Donaghy welcomed Williams to the decisive frame with a block that floored him. The Star had been grinding but largely only a factor on defence up to this point. He has always been the fire in this side, the one that channeled the crowd into everyone around him on the floor. A gentleman off the floor, he’d be the first to tell you how irritating he is to anyone facing him. The spark worked. Tralee were within 4 points following an Evans score. The Star inside and the drums kept on banging. Another block on Williams, another roar. At line O’Sullivan made it a one score game.
Just never forget the calm imbued at the Real Madrid academy. Luis-Filiberto Garcia-Hoyas was the one to convince Herreros to bring his studies to Dublin. He moved to 11 points on the night before catching an airball from O’Sullivan. All the drums and shouting are just part of the business when you grow up playing with Los Blancos. He’s used to being on the court with the big name everybody wants to take down, of being in the role of the heel.
Out of the timeout Roe went right to work on Dick. First on the inside then rolling around the arc before cutting inside from right to left for another floater. The hole was deep again and Tralee had to dig out again. With 3 minutes to go they had to make up a 9 point gap. A Hail Mary three from Evans was exactly what the doctor ordered. Dick went long too to keep them alive.
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The clock was not their friend however and Tralee had to gamble harder. Williams took advantage with a neat finish on a two-pass move up the floor. Dick from deep again but Tralee were sending Killester to the line to just keep stopping the clock from well over a minute out. Coach Pat Price had to be thinking the crowd could be a factor and wanted to bring them in to the endgame early. Williams rimmed out two but, despite two desperate recoveries by Donaghy to keep it inbounds, Tralee gave up possession again and they’d just wasted a whole heap of clock.
Eoin Quigley made it a 2 point game on a desperation turnover as Roe was sent to the line with the game on it. On a night where he dominated amongst a string of scoring talent, he had a chance to say the decisive last word. The drums blared as he paced at midcourt waiting from the all clear from the refs to step up. First shot, in. Second, in. A Dick three goes up, it hits the rim, with 2.6 seconds to go the smallest man on the floor grabs the final board. One last trip to the line but the job was done when he hit the floor. 34 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1 place in the big game at the end of the month.
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