BallinEurope’s week-long build up to the Irish cup finals begins with a brief look back. Emmet Ryan reflects on December’s Basketball Hall of Fame Classic in Belfast when the island came to a standstill for two big days up north
In any US city, the coming together of teams from the MAAC, Atlantic 10, CAA, and Patriot League wouldn’t exactly make a dent in college hoops. It would just be another early season tournament. Offering something that was a lot more than that was at the heart of what the Hall of Fame Classic in Belfast was about in terms of attracting teams and delivering something special to the attendees.
Over two days in the SSE Arena, over 9,000 people packed in to watch four schools do battle for what turned out to be a really pretty trophy.
Friday was a very Belfast day, with cold wind and the ever-present if undelivered threat of rain but what a set up. Even walking to the arena was a sight, with the Harland and Wolff cranes coming into view along with the Titanic experience as fans marched into the arena.
Kieran Donaghy was had made the journey all the way up to see another Tralee man in action. Donaghy, best known for his success in the green and gold Kerry jersey in Gaelic Football, has been at the forefront of bringing Tralee back to the big time in Irish basketball. The lad he was up to watch however towers over the big man. Cian Sullivan clocks in at 7’2” and was making a start for La Salle Explorers in the second game. Weighing just 215 lbs at present, the redshirt freshman has some filling out to do but he was always going to see minutes this weekend.
The early action however was between Holy Cross Crusaders and Manhattan Jaspers. Holy Cross had arrived a day later than the rest and the jetlag was visible from the outset. They had some unexpected support however in the form of a local school also called Holy Cross, whose youngsters were vocal throughout the contest.
To the right of press row was an unmistakable sight, a line of black and amber tracksuits from Killester. A strong contingent from the Dublin club had travelled after Basketball Ireland had ensured as few games as feasibly possible (there were one or two exceptions) were kept off this weekend to give the classic a few run.
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Pauly Paulicap of Manhattan had the honour of being the first player to score in a NCAA sanctioned tournament in Europe, with a dunk to open this encounter. Manhattan had really brought the numbers here, with their cheer squad, dance squad, and pep squad all on site.
Mentally there were adjustments to be made from press row. The surprise of hoops getting this type of a crowd in this type of an arena in Ireland was easy enough to process. The switch in pace to the college style was a different matter entirely. Those 6 extra seconds on the shot clock really do make a difference in how the flow of the game works compared to pretty much all other levels I usually watch.
The Jaspers ran out winners by 15 in the opener before Sullivan took the floor to make his own bit of history. The Tralee man started for La Salle against a confident looking Towson side, becoming the first European to play a regular season NCAA game this close to where he actually came from.
Sullivan sat for the rest of the game after the first timeout as the Explorers and Tigers stepped up a notch. This clash was clearly a level above the earlier encounter and eventually Towson prevailed with those watching expecting them to be a step above the Jaspers the next night.
La Salle would eventually win the consolation game over Holy Cross, with Sullivan starting again, but far more impressively the Manhattan cheer squad hadn’t lost a drop of energy heading into the final.
After Friday’s games I ran into them in a wonderfully named establishment called Filthy McNasty’s. The players, understandably, were home in their hotel to get ready for the long Saturday ahead, but plenty of the hoops community had poured into this spot.
Despite the sore heads, they all made it back to the SSE Arena for Saturday’s games. The Jaspers got off to a lively start in the final before Towson started to reel them in. Manhattan had set the tempo but weren’t ever able to break for home. They led 55-54 with the final posession for Towson. A step-back jumper from Mike Morsell was all the Tigers needed and they won the inaugural tournament 56-55.
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The end product on the floor was really only the beginning. Seeing a beaming Gareth Maguire, the man whose idea it was to get such a tournament up and running in Belfast, walking around the arena was something else. Having the mayor of Belfast, Nuala McAllister, there to open the event was a great touch to (not least because McAllister isn’t getting mistaken for a centre anytime soon).
Then, after Towson had lifted the trophy (which again was surprisingly pretty, good job everyone) they posed for photos with the Irish women’s Under 18 side who had secured silver medals the previous summer at the FIBA B championships Dublin. The two big international events of the Irish hoops year coming together in one shot was just a delight.
Getting an event on this scale to this island as a one-off and having it go smoothly was a blast but knowing that it’s coming back and is going to be bigger. Well that made me feeling like the middle aged man I am in a Belfast nightclub that Saturday night feel more than worth it.
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