Three years ago the Tralee Warriors did not exist, though the idea of an amalgam of the various clubs in the town was beginning to ferment in the mind of a fella called Kieran Donaghy.
The core of their side was playing for St Brendan’s in the county league, just a bit more than a pub team, though with Donaghy returning to play the sport for the first time in six years, they’d gather a bit of steam and win the inaugural intermediate National Cup that January of 2016 as St Brendan’s.
Yesterday the Warriors, finishing with a fully homegrown team on the court, won the biggest prize in domestic Irish men’s basketball, the Superleague title, in front of a home crowd that had packed the Tralee Sports Complex 80 minutes before tip-off, as has been the custom here in recent weeks.
A match against the defending champions, UCD Marian, ended up less of a contest as a carnival and coronation.
By the end of the first quarter they had already scored 32 points to lead by eight. By half-time they were up 20, 55-35, and midway through the third the gap was out to 29.
In the last quarter they’d call off the dogs, or at least Paul Dick, their brilliant but injury-hampered guard, while Elijah May, the lightning-quick guard Marian picked up from the midseason windup of Swords Thunder, kept playing as if his side still had a shot at a title they were eliminated from 24 hours earlier. But when even he started making his way over to extend his hand to Tralee players as the countdown on the clock reached single figures, the scoreboard read 88-73.
With 11 consecutive wins and just four losses, they spared themselves the bother of a playoff next week against Templeogue, who finished one game back on five losses.
The town of Tralee itself is no stranger to that Superleague trophy. Twenty-three years ago, coached by Tim ‘Boomshakalaka’ McCarthy, the Tralee Tigers were presented with the trophy, with a giddy 13-year-old Donaghy photobombing his heroes such as Ricardo Leonard, John Teahan, Maurice Casey and Kieran O’Sullivan.
Yesterday Leonard, Teahan, Casey and O’Sullivan were among those who flooded onto the court to applaud and video Donaghy with the trophy and his teammates, his vision of another generation of Tralee youngsters experiencing nights like that one in ’96 gloriously realised.
The Tigers would also win the title in 2004 and 2008, but as the captain of that 2004 success, Kevin O’Donoghue, now giving back as one of the Warriors stewards, would remark as the tickertape continued to rain down, this was extra special for the town.
Those successes were won in playoff finals on neutral ground: the first down in the Mardyke, then the immortal 2008 heist of Killester up in UL. This was won, or at least, presented on their home court.
When Pat Price and his players though reflect on this title over the coming nights or indeed as old men many years from now, they’ll concur that THE battle in this exhausting campaign was their joust with Marian the previous evening.
A quirk in the fixtures meant Irish basketball was left with its own cross between March Madness and the NBA: the final weekend featuring back-to-back games between two title contenders: going into the weekend Marian were level with Templeogue, with just five losses. And with five minutes to go in their home game up in Belfield, it appeared as if they’d forced Tralee to join them on five losses, making the return match in Tralee 24 hours later a de facto playoff semifinal to see who’d square off against Templeogue. Marian were 74-62 up while the entire Tralee starting five were experiencing either injury or foul trouble.
Dick, who was undergoing both, was fouled out. Then Dusan Bojanovic, who like Dick, had also scored 19 points, collapsed in agony, clutching his knee, which would rule him out for the rest of the weekend. And then American Keith Jumper, picked up his fifth foul.
This crew though are not called the Warriors simply because Steph Curry & Co were the hottest team in basketball upon their formation. From the timeout and play Pat Price called, Eoin Quigley cut backdoor to dunk. Then, after they’d missed their first 15 three-point attempts of the evening, Quigley and Fergal O’Sullivan nailed a couple from beyond the arc.
And then there was Donaghy. He wasn’t just scrapping for every ball but for every second. In basketball once the ball goes dead, the clock only restarts after the inbound pass is received, not dispatched.
And so, to buy himself a few precious seconds, Donaghy allowed the ball to roll up the length of his own backcourt before picking it up just a bit below the Marian bench and then exploding to the hoop. Another two points back, another few seconds saved.
With 20 seconds to go, they’d clawed it back to 80-79. Then came a play Price was still recalling in awe hours later in the great basketball pit-stop that is Junction 14. Donaghy was on four fouls, marking Conor Meany, a 92 percent free-throw shooter. And yet he went for the steal. And got it.
And got fouled himself. And made one of the free throws to bring it to overtime.
You thought that was it then. That they just wouldn’t have the bodies or energy for overtime. But they would, finishing with three of that St Brendan’s team that just about scraped past Cork Celts in a junior match up in Portlaoise three years ago.
It would be past midnight by the time they limped back to their beds in Tralee but by tip-off at 5pm the next evening, they were ready for more, feeding off the energy of a crowd that had been whipped up into a frenzy beforehand.
Just like a game last month down the road in Austin Stack Park, Liam O’Connor, was wheeled in for another game against some Dubs, with the locals loving his James Brown-Hendrix stitching on the accordion.
Marian provided some theatre themselves, their coach Ionnais Liapakis engaging in constant remonstrations to the officials.
He ended up only distracting his own players. But there’d be no distracting or denying Tralee.