In assessing the needs must for Saturday night’s National Cup semi-final, Tralee coach Pat Price would have happily signed for limiting Killester’s American, Royce Williams, to 11 points.
Holding their ex-Real Madrid forward Luis Hoyos to 13 would have been another mark in the plus column and restricting the Dubliners to 33 in total in the second half? That all sounded like something Price could get on board with.
Tralee achieved all of that but looked next to helpless in interrupting the tour de force that was Killester’s 5’ 11’ international guard Ciarán Roe, who put on as near a perfect 40 minute show as makes no difference at the Mardkye Arena in Cork.
Thirty-four points, 11 for 11 from the line – the last four were clutch makes as Tralee made an unlikely run at pulling the semi out of the fire – five assists and seven defensive boards were the game’s standout stats from its MVP. On a night everyone was expecting Tralee guard Paul Dick to light up the Arena, his opposite number produced a career performance as Killester edged the Kerry side 76-70, advancing to a Dublin derby decider with UCD Marian in a fortnight.
“Roe’s performance was off the charts,” sighed Tralee coach Price. “I’ve seen a lot of Cup games and that’s the best I’ve seen.”
Roe, aged 25, wasn’t inclined to disagree. “It’s probably as well as I’ve played in a big game, though it’s not always about putting scores on the board either. That’s not usually my role when I’ve got three or four of the best 15 shooters in the league surrounding me. My job is to get into the lane, try and cause a little bit of hassle, suck in defences and try to get a free shot for some of my guys. “But certainly, for a big game and the score that I finished with… yeah, it’s probably my best game.”
Roe drove hard and often through the centre of Tralee’s defence and as nimble as he is, that sets pertinent questions for either Tralee’s defence or desire. Price admitted that the post-mortems would continue through the night and into this week, but another debilitating first quarter, after which they trailed by 16, undid Tralee as much as Roe.
“We played the wings hard, but he took the (central) gaps and he took the opportunities. We’ve had first quarter and first half issues in three or four games in the past two months,” he added. “I don’t want that to be our identity, but that first half tonight looked like us in a lot of games. And in the second half you have that heroic stuff - cut it to nine, cut it to six - but that’s not what we should be known for – we have too much talent to spot teams 16-point leads.”
Tralee outscored Killester in each of the last three quarters, but they could never turn off Roe’s scoring tap fully. And every drive, visit to the line or dish off from the MVP broke the momentum of Tralee’s comeback effort. Even then the Warriors almost pulled off a miraculous escape as their intensity – typified by Dick, Kieran Donaghy, Eoin Quickley and Fergal O’Sullivan - went into overdrive in the fourth quarter. At one point the deficit was a yawning 21 points (38-17), but they nipped it all the way down to two (72-70) in a frantic final minute.
The Monday morning quarterbacks might well wonder how costly some of Tralee’s fourth-quarter shot selection proved – “we ended up in La- la-land in terms of the kind of shots we took,” was how Price labelled it. “I can’t question their effort or their hunger but how I wish we wouldn’t start off being 16 down at the end of the first quarter. You can do that some games, but you are rolling the dice.”
The pre-match buzz about Tralee’s Paul Dick could have been projected onto the walls of the Mardyke for all Roe knew. He doesn’t do social media, and has “incredible self-belief,” his coach Brian O’Malley revealed after.
In his own quiet way, Roe elaborated: “I know my own capabilities, I’ve played at a high level too. I pride myself on the defensive end too but credit where it’s due, Paul Dick is one of the best players in the country - and many would regard him as the best in the country. You have to play team defence against the likes of Paul because it’s a lot of pick and rolls. I’d give an awful lot of credit to my ‘bigs’ who were out there, recovering hard on their (match-ups).”
“That performance is a reward for the two or three nights a week in May in St David’s and I’m battering him with a pad as he is going to the basket. I am delighted that on a big stage he can show the fruition of that hard work.” Killester have some psychological baggage in the Cup when it comes to big fourth quarter leads, so they tightened up down the stretch as Tralee began to throw everything – from every angle – at them.
Incredibly with 15 seconds left, a Quigley score had the gap down to a single basket but Killester inbounded the ball to the right man – Roe was fouled and iced two sets of free-throws to close it out.
The game started 20 minutes late due to queues outside the Mardyke Arena, but it wasn’t just the Tralee fans struggling to get into the game. Roe knitted the Killester offence together sublimely, bagging 12 points of his own in the first quarter and finishing it with a no-look backdoor to Kieran O’Brien for an emphatic 29-13 lead. That proved decisive right there. Tralee never gained parity.
Eventually they unearthed some momentum in the third quarter, eight fast points reducing it to 50-42. Price revealed afterwards that both Americans Jordan Evans (12 pts) and Keith Jumper (10) played hurt, and down the stretch Dick, Donaghy and Quigley made some key plays. Not enough of them though to upset the Roe show.
The other semi was more straightforward. Last year’s beaten finalists UCD Marian booked a spot in the renewal with a 91-63 point win over Belfast Star. “I’m really thrilled that we’re going back to the final, because last year, one of my mistakes cost the players to lose the Cup. So it was huge for me to help them get back this time,” said head coach Ioannis Liapakis. “That may be the best performance in the year defensively for us.”
Killester top scorers: Ciarán Roe (34), Luis Garcia Hoyos (13), Royce Williams (11)
Tralee top scorers: Paul Dick (15), Jordan Evans (12), Eoin Quigley (11), Keith Jumper (10)