The race was over, then it was alive again, then it was decided. Over the course of 2 games, starting 24 hours apart, the Irish Super League championship was decided in a combination of both the height of drama and the calm of a coronation. Emmet Ryan hit the road to take in all the, well, everything
It’s quiet in Belfield. Saturdays are always dead here. None of the cafés are open. Save for the odd researcher, there are no students around. There’s a schools debating tournament on in the Arts block but the kids are tucked away in rooms out of sight. The lines on the floor there guiding unfamiliar visitors to different departments are faded and torn.
The college has 32,900 students now, up from 21,000 in my day. Back then the place had 3 bars, now there’s only 1.
The word was out to be early, really early. The door wasn’t formally opening in UCD until 4pm but by 3.30pm, they had no choice but to start letting people in. The travelling support from Tralee had been around a while already and Belfield was set for its biggest every basketball game.
In what was certainly a first, as the bleachers filled up, two gym benches were put beside the far end of them from the entrance. Foldable chairs were put nearer the door. Then the balcony filled up at the side and then the end. The windows in a cafe opposite, while not serving but with doors open, filled up some more. Anyone else getting in had to stand beside the door.
Mario Markovicz opened up from the line for UCD Marian and Keith Jumper responded quickly for Tralee. The Let’s Go Warriors chant clashed with the UCD one as the intensity was clear from the off.
Ioannis Liapakis had a couple of tweaks early with his line-up, going young and small through Cathal Finn and Aidan Dunne that gave Conor Meany and JJ Vall Llobera a chance to avoid blowing up in the first of two games back to back.
It was frenetic, an Eoin Quigley lay-up responded to a Mike Garrow score but the most defining trait of the first frame was turnovers. Both sides were trying to move the ball so fast up the floor that out of bounds passes were frequent.
An inside move by Dusan Bogdanovic gave Tralee their first lead, and they had the chance to press it but the ball stayed loose. Mid-frame, it was only 8-8 in a game where both teams had been running wildly. A Markovicz dunk brought the UCD bench to its feet for the first time. Fergal O’Sullivan drew an and-1 chance with 3.33 left in the first quarters, and the Tralee fans celebrated like it was the final moments.
The changes came fast, Liapakis had gone 10 deep before the first quarter was done, stretching eventually to an 11 man rotation, while Tralee went with 9 for most of it. At the first breather, the home side led 18-17.
This old hall, which I first saw hoops in when Jermaine Turner lit up Denny Notre Dame in the autumn of 2002, hasn’t changed much on the inside. The lines for plenty of different sports still scatter across the floor. Red, for basketball, green for handball, white for badminton, there’s volleyball, indoor football, and a few others dotted there as well.
The outside is a bizarre combination of different eras of architecture, none of them shrouded in glory. The old sport centre had been merged with the not so old student centre less than 10 years after the latter opened. The building work to combine them brought in a swimming pool, a cinema, and a fancy debating chamber.
The med school is here now too, moved over from Earlsfort Terrace in the city centre beside the National Concert Hall. Between it and the megastructure that combines the two old buildings lies a lonely hoop, a rare outdoor one in this part of town.
The one bar left, the Student Club, was where we celebrated the soccer team winning the League of Ireland First Division last October, winning promotion back to the top flight.
The second quarter was dominated by Tralee for the most part but they simply failed to make it count on the scoreboard. With UCD struggling from deep, they eventually got going through Conor Meany in the second. The veteran went off for three in the quarter as the home side responded to a 9-0 run from Tralee at the start of the frame.
The wear and tear was showing as Bogdanovic received attention while he sat. A Finn three put UCD back in front to cut off the hot start by the Warriors. Then Liapakis switched to a double big line-up, putting Neil Baynes out alongside Markovicz. It didn’t last as Baynes quickly picked up his third foul but the switch back to a conventional line-up saw UCD play more fluidly.
The work Tralee had put into the quarter was for nought at the half. A long two by Dunne ensured the hosts stayed ahead 40-39.
One permanent fixture stands above all. His name, unknown. The silence, permanent. With shaggy white hair and a beard, his clothes have greyed with age.
How he became part of Belfield is open to all kinds of folklore but he is timeless here. The canteens feeds him. The one time a new management company tried to stop the practice, the students revolted.
Even on a Saturday, he roams the campus with dignity and far more speed than it appears. The students change but their duty to him doesn’t. We are visitors in his home.
Ian Lucey, one of the home side’s sponsors, finally found a seat at the start of the second half as he parked beside me on the bench. He saw Garrow stretch the lead to 5 before Paul Dick responded from deep. The guard, who looks an awful lot like Nick Calathes, was basically the work for the Warriors in the third as UCD brought all the pressure.
Meany, Garrow, Meany again as the lead reached 11 points. Dick stopped the run again. Jumper should have been able to cut in more but he was starting to realise this wasn’t his day at the line. He’d endured rotten luck all through the afternoon but this 0 of 2 was the sign that it was all going to work out poorly for him. There was no luck off the following possession but Tralee rallied.
Dick kept things going, and now it was a quarter dominated by the hosts that saw them not make it matter when it counts. The home side led but with 10 minutes to play, it was only 58-54.
While formally the visitors, Tralee had brought their drums on the bus up. Most of their supporters had arrived at 2pm, a solid 3 hours before tip. The stands had been full from 35 minutes before the start, that was when the extra seating had to be deployed.
There was a bit of bite going into this one without considering the stakes. A win for UCD, and they could force a playoff with Templeogue, presuming the 2017 champions beat Moycullen that night, by beating Tralee again the next day. A win for Tralee, and they’d take the title with victory again at home irrespective of what Templeogue did.
Liapakis had tried to stir things up in the newspapers, telling the Irish Independent that if the refs were strict then Kieran Donaghy would be in foul trouble quickly. They were typical mind games, bringing the whistles into the fight is a classic Greek move.
Elijah Mays came out like a house of fire for the hosts. He opened the fourth with a lay-up then the little man made a big block on Bogdanovic that led to the latter being T-ed up for his reaction.
Jumper got to the line again, Jumper found iron twice again and Marian were charging. Matt Kelly made it a 9 point advantage and the pace wasn’t letting up. There was an indavertent breather as a Finn effort from deep ended up stuck in the stanchion behind the backboard. The Galway man would soon give UCD a double digit lead more. Mays was running willed as UCD looked to break for home. Finn again and the lead was 12. The home crowd was getting louder, roaring over the drums of Tralee, as their confidence built.
A Quigley dunk looked a forlorn effort to spark something but this felt done. UCD had made their second break and it looked decisive. Tralee got some stops but Donaghy missed an open three and that looked that.
His testy battle with Scott Kinevane all day led to the two getting chippy, before the UCD guard was fed on the subsequent inbounds. He teased thrice before Donaghy bit, fouled, and the mental was done. Physically, Tralee were in trouble. Bogdanovic went down for good with 2.45 left. A Markovicz trip to the line pushed it back to a 9 point gap.
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A couple of UCD fans beside me were seriously considering booking flights to Farranfore for the next morning. This game was won and now the title was there to be fought for in Tralee. UCD had accomplished the first part of the deal.
Then they didn’t.
Markovicz botched at the line and then Donaghy made it just a 5 point gap. It wasn’t lost yet, until a few moments later when it was again. Dick fouled out, Markovicz made sure from the line and with 1.28 to go the lead was 7.
Quigley from deep, the gap is 4. Markovicz stuffs jumper, draws a foul, that’s Jumper done for the day too. The first free throw goes round the world before dropping in, with the PA Paul Meany jokingly going “swish”. Both drop, there’s 6 between them and Tralee need help.
Donaghy inside, 4 point game. Fergal O’Sullivan from deep it’s 1 between them and still all of 30.4 seconds to play. Meany fools Donaghy with a crossover on the inbounds but the Tralee man chases back, makes the steal, and Meany fouls. 1 of 2 from the line. It’s tied 80-80 with 21 seconds to play.
Mays called his own number, it rimmed out but Darragh O’Hanlon flubbed the rebound. Meany went for it on the buzzer but he found iron too. Overtime.
Just a few minutes earlier, the UCD fans seated beside me were looking at flights to Farranfore on the Aer Lingus app. They hadn’t bought them, yet, but they had ample reason to think they’d need them.
Through the season they’d seen UCD manage to create more than enough holes for themselves and dig themselves out again. The home side was unbeaten since losing the cup final to Killester in January. Along the way back into the title race, they’d essentially ended the challenge of Belfast Star, knocked off front runners Templeogue on the road, and routed Killorglin, Moycullen, Neptune, and UCC Demons on a furious run-in that saw them win 8 straight in the Super League.
No Bogdanovic, no Dick, no Jumper, yet Tralee were still breathing. Garrow blocked Fergal into the ground to start off overtime. A foul was called but a statement was made. The UCD man grabbed the board as O’Sullivan missed the second at the line and Dunne put the hosts back in front.
Quigley right back before Markovicz restored the home side’s advantage from the line. It was tied again at 84-84 when Donaghy went 1 of 2 from the line before a shocking switch by Liapakis late.
He opted to go small again, sitting his big man Markovicz. There was more speed for UCD but that didn’t turn to scores. Quigley would give Tralee the lead from the line with 1.48 to play and then things got silly.
Finn had a big steal off O’Hanlon but Dunne couldn’t convert. UCD were getting the ball but finding no way to score. Another bounce went their way as Quigley fouled out with 27.5 seconds left.
Tralee were down 4 starters between injuries and fouls, only Donaghy remaining in the game, and Garrow had a chance to level matters at the line. Both failed to drop and the game rested on the shoulders of the man who had seen the court the least that night.
Rapolas ‘Rap’ Buivydas, a local lad of Lithuanian parents, hadn’t seen the floor before Quigley fouled out. The 16 year old was jumped on right away once he got the ball and sent to the line. The first rimmed out but the second dropped and UCD now needed a deep ball.
Meany with the chance, no good. Kinevane gets it back, and he finds iron too. In the most extraordinary of circumstances, with Buivydas adding a lay-up on the buzzer for insurance, Tralee had taken the win 84-89. Part one was complete, UCD’s title hopes gone, and the drums banged hard.
Tralee coach Pat Price ran to Rap, embracing him and sharing a private word. He embraced every player he could find, as the grey jerseyed visitors went over to their travelling fans and celebrated.
While the visitors shared their delight at moving to within a single win of a maiden championship, Mays was still signing balls and jerseys for kids who had come out to see him play. A long trip lay ahead, where now he and his comrades could only hope to play spoiler.
As soon as I got in the door, the spice bag was ordered. Xi’an on South Anne St do a great run. By the time I’d started on the way home, Templeogue had more than taken control of matters in Moycullen, with Lorcan Murphy stealing the show like he usually does.
— Ali Kenny (@ali_kennyx3) March 23, 2019
That result meant the paths were clear. A win for Tralee at home, and they were champions. A loss, and it would be a playoff with Templeogue the following Thursday probably in Limerick. The following weekend wouldn’t work because of the Champions Trophy fixtures. A midweek game would suit neither but the Dublin club would take it just for a shot at the crown.
The crowd in Tralee stands until their team gets off the board. The wait was brief on Sunday, with Dick being fouled after just 3 seconds. He made both from the line and immediately reached to his ankle in pain afterwards. You could smell the panic in the house at the sight of an injury affecting this side so early.
Jumper’s issues from the line the prior day hadn’t gone away. He missed both of his first two shots from the stripe but would end up doing well from the field, leading his team in scoring with 20. Then came a turnover by Dick, and the tiniest bit of doubt came into the complex.
UCD however were being called in their own paint with too much regularity to cope. The third inside foul was called against them with barely 2 minutes gone. The visitors had some fight in them and there was more cause for concern with the home crowd as Donaghy went down for a few moments after he fouled Garrow. At least it was his face and not his leg he was clutching. He was ok and far from the worst for wear. Finn had to leave the game to get bandaged up and returned looking like Terry Butcher in Stockholm in 1989.
Then the scoring got crazy. Dick from deep, Barry Drumm responding, Donaghy right back, before Quigley scored inside to give the Warriors the first two possession lead of the game. Fergal O’Sullivan from deep and we were barely midway through the first quarter with both sides lighting it up.
JJ Vall Llobera kept the hosts from running away with it but then the hero from the prior day took the floor. Buivydas got a big welcome and gave the people what they wanted with a three on his first shot before grabbing a board off a missed Dick effort.
Things got chippy, UCD were out of the title race but their fight wasn’t gone, and Williams hopped up to get his few words in before he watched his side leaded 32-24 at the end of the first.
Not long after 9am on Sunday morning I got to Heuston Station, it was a pretty day in Dublin with clear skies. I inhaled a breakfast roll and got the 10am train. After a break in Mallow to change trains, it was on to Tralee.
The complex is a short walk from the train station. Along the way up I’d met the UCD players in the petrol station. They seem surprisingly spritely considering everything. They’d travelled down the night before, able to sleep off the disappointment and get ready for one more run out.
A solid 1 hour and 47 minutes before tip, I saw a queue going a long way out the improvised alternative entrance. The queue to get in had started even earlier, a full 3 hours before tip. The Rose of Tralee rang out in the queue as I slipped through for a place at the front of the stand. Local violinists were finishing off their warm-up before taking seats just behind me.
40 minutes from tip, it kicked off. Clad in leather pants and a jacket with a flame down the back, Liam O’Connor was here to get this place rocking. The concertina, quite similar to an accordion, is more associated with sedate or chilled tunes. O’Connor had the people singing along to Dirty Old Town, then the Rattling Bog, the Fields of Athenry, Sean South of Garryowen, and he alternated between running into the stand and writhing on the floor.
The place was already hot enough to be worried about the mental trauma if they didn’t win today and then, just as they were recovering from O’Connor’s performance, the club chairman came out with a rabble rousing address.
The intros followed, to Sirius as ever with Rap getting an extra special roar for heroics the previous day. Eye of the Tiger played before tip as though the people here needed anything more to pump them up. There was, after all, the small matter of a title deciding basketball game to play.
Marian came out with their double big line-up to start the second but on the three possessions they went with both Baynes and Markovicz, Mays went with isos that never made the defence bite.
The scoring from Tralee had slowed but UCD’s had ended entirely. Donaghy airballed a three but Jumper grabbed it for an easy dunk. A putback lay-up by the American moved the lead to 12 before a bandaged Finn finally returned to action.
Donaghy grew the lead to 15 by the middle of the second and all UCD had to show for their troubles was a lone Meany free throw. The pain kept coming, Donaghy was fouled intentionally midcourt, he ran up the floor for a dunk that he knew wouldn’t count just to get the crowd pumped even more. Liapakis was getting irked by any and all calls that he didn’t like, as he watched whatever hope was left evaporate with a Fergal O’Sullivan three that made it a 19 point lead.
With 3.43 to play, Dunne finally got UCD’s first field goal of the quarter but this had already turned into a blowout. The net spell of -11 was just too much for them and it would get worse, as they trailed 55-35. The Warriors were just 20 minutes from a maiden title.
It has been a long road back for Tralee, albeit run they’ve run on hard since getting there. The town has three clubs, St Brendan’s, Imperials, and Tigers. The latter lifted the Super League crown in 1996, 2004, and 2008, with Donaghy being part of the victories in the last decade.
The recession came and top tier basketball ended in Kerry. Donaghy focused on football, where he would win All Ireland titles with Kerry, county and provincial titles with Austin Stacks, and pick up a few All Stars along the way.
With St Brendan’s he’d win an intermediate clubs national basketball championship and that would be a key step in the road back, not just for the town but for hoops across the county. Tralee wanted in the Super League so St Brendan’s and Imperials joined forces to form the Warriors, they hope yet to get Tigers involved.
If Tralee was going to get going again, the other towns wouldn’t let them walk into claiming local bragging rights. Killorglin and Killarney came in at Division 1 level, the former going up to Super League at the first attempt and the latter narrowly missing out on joining their in-county rivals this season. Down the levels it has spread, with a schools All Ireland semi-final in January packing the complex in Tralee at the start of the year.
The Warriors meanwhile secured titles in each of their first two season back in the big time, winning the end of season Champions trophy in 2017 and 2018. A disappointing display in the cup semi final against Killester left them squarely focused on the biggest one of all as the season came to its closing stages.
Quigley went deep on the first possession of the third quarter before the schoolkid Buivydas made the lead 24 from the line. Vall Llobera, just to add to UCD’s woes, picked up his fifth within 2 minutes of the restart and then Dick made the lead 26 points.
It was a drubbing and the crowd was more than into it. They’d seen enough heartstoppers that season to be satisfied with coasting over the line. Marian tried to get the ball moving but they couldn’t do a lot with it. A mini rally towards the end of the frame ensured they were no worse off than the break but this one was done, 71-51 with 10 minutes to play.
Dusan Bogdanovic was watching on from the bench. The big Croatian, listed at 6’11, was on crutches and wouldn’t be able to play in the clincher. Without him or Williams, with Jumper essentially playing on one knee, and Dick obviously still hurting, this wounded crew was limping over the line albeit in comfortable fashion.
Injuries are part and parcel of sport but this was just ludicrous stuff. Throughout the season this side had lost starters, forced to make multiple changes to the roster along the way, and still the woes kept coming.
The drama of the previous day encapsulated all of it and the need to take the next man up attitude to heart because there really was no alternative. A painful slog, with a post-season tournament still to come, was about to be worth it.
It was awfully testy from both benches early in the final quarter, particularly considering the game was well in hand for the hosts. Baynes had opened from deep for Tralee but Donaghy had responded in kind.
The mood in the stands was impatience, waiting for the final buzzer to get to the big moment. Mays for his part was ensuring there was at least some entertainment while they waited. He was doing some nice work on both ends, harrying well for steals and racking up plenty of points as UCD put some dignity on the final scoreboard. It was downright hero ball stuff but never enough to give the home fans any reason to think Marian might pull off an even more improbable comeback than Tralee’s 24 hours earlier.
Dunne eventually fouled out before a Quigley putback on his own miss reminded the crowd to get rowdy again. Having spent five years in Limerick, the local boy was back in a big role for his hometown team and had secured a job to keep him in the town.
A Steph Curry three, or Oscar Schmidt three if you’re really cool, from Donaghy had the place erupt and it was called to its feet by the PA to stand through the end from 3 minutes out. Jumper made a floater inside and at the next timeout Williams was hopping around on one foot to get the house pumping through the finish.
TRALEE ARE MEN’S SUPER LEAGUE CHAMPIONS!!!!!!
Posted by Basketball Ireland on Sunday, March 24, 2019
Finally, the horn. 88-73, a 16-4 record, and a first ever Super League title for the Tralee Warriors. Their third major trophy in three seasons, one in every year they have existed. A team that demanded a spot in the top flight from day one had more than justified its worth as everyone seemed to be jumping on everyone.
On the floor it was, as ever, about the fans. Kids crushed either side along with adults as Mary McGuire of Basketball Ireland had to get a couple of volunteers to create any kind of space for the table for the presentation. The noise never died down as the players walked or limped their way up to collect their medals before Fergal O’Sullivan raised the trophy.
CHAMPIONS!!! Darren O’Sullivan, Kieran Donaghy and Fergal O’Sullivan react to winning the Men’s Super League 🔥🏀🙌🏻💪🏻🏀🕺🥇🏆🥇🏆🥇🏆
Posted by Basketball Ireland on Sunday, March 24, 2019
The evening celebrations were in the Greyhound Bar, with Duke barely surviving UCF in March Madness on the TV. The players promised the celebrations would be a couple of nights long, fully aware that they’d feel it come the next training session before the Champions Trophy campaign started.
Between the presentation and the pints came the oddest moment. Walking out of the complex, anyone looking through the window could see a swimming class was going along as normal. Amidst the furious celebrations, there was this bit of normality. It was a community centre after all, you’d forget it wasn’t only the home of the Warriors.
The alarm went off at 5.45am. The four pints hadn’t helped but the 7.05am train would, ample time to nap.
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