It's 10 years they’ve had it like this now: the Cup weekend back in Cork and a festival of hoops moving between the grand houses of the game, known to the locals as The Hall, the Mardyke and The Shed, though the rest of the country would know the latter more commonly as the Neptune Stadium.
The switch was initially born from a quirk of history and the luck of the draw. For the 2010 Men’s Superleague Cup semi-finals, then reigning league and Cup champions UCC Blue Demons were paired against their old nemesis Neptune, who just happened to be celebrating the silver jubilee of their stadium.
So where and what better way to mark such a monumental achievement, all the more as it also deliciously coincided with the 25th anniversary of Irish basketball’s Darby Moment, the Strickland Steal that robbed Demons and stole for Neptune the first televised Cup title of them all.
The move was just what the sport and the Cup required at the time.
The previous year, barely 250 people were in the National Basketball Arena for either of the men’s semi-finals, with half the crowd emptying out of the place upon watching an epic women’s semi-final clash between Glanmire and DCU.
It had been the third year of the semi-finals being held on a separate weekend to the finals themselves, to allow players’ more time to recuperate and television more time to prepare preview packages, but the format hadn’t caught on with the basketball, let alone the general, public.
The carnival weekend vibe had been diluted and in hedging between going up to Tallaght for the semi-final or waiting for a possible final a fortnight later, too many folk weren’t bothering to go at all.
Cork has changed all that. In giving back to a city that had felt as wronged and robbed of losing the Cup (which switched to Dublin upon the opening of the Arena in 1993) as the most aggrieved Demons diehard did upon losing that Cup final in ’85, Irish basketball gained so much.
By acknowledging and celebrating its past, Irish basketball had given its Cup a brighter, better future.
Now it’s a fixture, a set date, in the basketball calendar. Just as we have turkey on December 25 and a day later Castleisland hosts a mega-blitz, and in late January Tallaght still stages the Cup finals, there’s now a generation of player that only knows of the Cup semi-final weekend being in Cork.
Everyone is buzzing for this. For all Kieran Donaghy has done in sport, he has never played in a Cup weekend in the Neptune Stadium, something he has dreamed of since as a kid seeing Ger and Simon Kennedy trading threes back in ’89. Áine McKenna, a serial winner with Glanmire, has spoken about how “great” it is her semi-final this year is in the Stadium where she hasn’t played in years.
Even Gráinne Dwyer, one of the few players to have won even more national honours than McKenna but whose new side Fr Mathews failed to make it to this weekend’s last four, has tweeted how this “is the best weekend in the Irish basketball calendar”.
There is no all-Cork derby this weekend but at this point the Cup semi-final weekend can stand on its own legs. This year’s bill is particularly intriguing, not least as so many ties have the next best thing you can get to a local derby.
1. A tale of two cities
All but one of the Superleague semi-finals are Cork v Dublin affairs, and in the case of the women, both semi-final pairings feature that dynamic. At the moment DCU Mercy appear to have too much for everyone, including this evening’s opponents (6pm throw-in today, Neptune) and last year’s Cup finalists Brunell (the Dublin giants are 9-1 in this year’s Superleague, the Cork girls, 2-9), but on the other side of the draw you can never dismiss Glanmire.
Last season, following the seismic departures of Dwyer and Claire Rockall, was the first time in 14 seasons that the club failed to reach any senior national final, but under the customary cunning and persistence of Mark Scannell, they have stabilised to form a formidable team. McKenna is playing some of the basketball of her life and with both Americans Shrita Parker and Tatum Neubert now embedded into the club’s system and culture, they have it in them to once again foil DCU’s party.
The only thing is, they’ve to get over Killester first. And that won’t be straightforward, as often as Glanmire-Killester games have been in the past. Karl Kilbride hasn’t as deep a bench as he has had in the past but that tighter rotation could work for him this afternoon (2pm today, Neptune). Still, it’s hard not to see yet another Cork-Dublin, Scannell-v-Ingle, Glanmire-DCU faceoff at the end of the month.
2. Has the Keenan-Killeen axis got one more trophy in it? Have Neptune got another shock in them?
Since the breakup-decline of the great Blue Demons of Coughlan and the O’Reillys, Templeogue have been the most consistent side in the domestic men’s game, winning a major title in each of the previous four seasons — two Cups, a league and last year’s Champions Trophy.
Pivotal to that success has been the tandem of coach Mark Keenan and Jason Killeen, which also gobbled up three national titles together in Limerick with the UL Eagles. Throw in Keenan’s time coaching Killester and you’re talking about a coach who has won five Cups and six Superleagues.
But could Killeen’s powers be waning, and with it, Templeogue’s? They’re 8-6 in the league, their worst record at this juncture in six seasons. Neptune, after bolting out of the gates by winning their first five league games, have levelled off, losing their last four games, but all those defeats were by tight margins.
While they’re not reliable or deep enough to win a league, the Corkmen are explosive and bold enough to sneak a Cup, or at least cause a shock in a home semi-final (8pm today, Neptune). Player-coach Lehmon Colbert is as equipped as anyone to bang inside with Killeen and while Kyle Hosford has had a subdued season to date, there’s a big game in him and this is the big occasion that could bring it out.
Neptune’s one senior national title the past 17 years came in the Cup in 2013 when they tripped up a fancied UL Eagles team led by Keenan and Killeen. They have it in them to torment K&K again.
3. Are Tralee ever getting back to Tallaght?
If Templeogue just about edge it as the most consistent team of recent seasons, then Tralee have been by a distance the best story.
To win a Champions Trophy in each of their first two seasons back in the Superleague, then to win the league outright in their third to go with all the full-house signs at the Complex is beyond what they or anyone could have envisaged.
But there’s a gaping hole in their remarkable adventure. They’ve yet to win a Cup. They’ve yet to even make it to a final in Tallaght.
This represents the Warriors’ best chance. Donaghy, Paul Dick and Eoin Quigley aren’t going to be playing forever, at least not together. But this afternoon (4pm, Neptune) they go against probably the biggest surprise in all of basketball this season (bar Luka Doncic’s leap from rookie to MVP candidate).
When newly-promoted DBS Éanna beat Tralee at home in their third game of the season, it seemed just one of those typical losses by a veteran team shaking off its cobwebs, albeit notice that Éanna could survive at this level.
But the Dublin side have since proven that not only can they hang with the big boys, they might even best them all.
At the moment they are joint-top of the league, alongside Belfast Star and Tralee on four losses apiece.
Last weekend down in Tralee in the league they rallied from 15 down entering the last quarter to take the lead only to lose at the death by three points.
This could come down to a battle of the point guards: Paul Dick v Josh Wilson, the league’s two leaders in assists and averaging 13 and 12.6 points per game respectively.
Tralee are vulnerable, being pretty banged up just as they were when they were caught by Killester at this juncture 12 months ago but you sense pride, guile, and Pat Price’s greater experience of this scene will edge it for them.