“That was a rollercoaster,” O’Sullivan said, and as he elaborated, it was evident he wasn’t only referring to the 40 minutes of Saturday drama at the National Arena.
“It’s been up and down all week, Ciaran (O’Sullivan) was battling a flu, we didn’t know how much he could give us, Jimmy Puha the same, Ronan (O’Sullivan, the coach’s son) had a wrist problem.” But that’s just the micro stuff. At a macro level, Ballincollig basketball has been a roller-coaster too of forward then back, progress followed by disappointment. Finally this year the club decided to go National League. Sitting in the stands Saturday were Francis O’Sullivan and his wife Grace who’ve been buffeted every step of the journey, from nursery to this epic finale. Except, it can’t be that, believes Kieran O’Sullivan, the coach and Francis’ brother.
“This is only a step on the way, the journey continues. It’s very special and emotional for Francis and Grace for the club to get to this elevated place. They’ve been bringing through kids for years. And then when (Francis’ son) Ciaran walked back into the club (from Demons), that brought its own momentum. Everyone knew how significant that was.”
Coach O’Sullivan relied on the advice of others (Ronnie Hurley, ex-North Mon coach for one) – in scouting Texan Cameron Clark, then based in Finland, before this campaign: “He will do what it says on the tin, he will score for you”, Hurley told the Ballincollig coach.
Talk about striking oil in Texas. Even the Killorglin faithful were agog at Clark’s 29-point haul, and the critical timing of seven three-pointers. “Undefendable,” they admitted about a player who didn’t take up the game until he was 14 and never played any level of High School ball. In the end, he bested Killorglin’s talisman Daniel Jokubaitis in a high-stakes shootout, but his three-pointer on the run with 51 seconds left was the gamebreaker, snapping a tie to post a 65-62 lead for Ballincollig that they wouldn’t give up.
That Killorglin, the Division One leaders, had bested Ballincollig twice this season, was an incentive of sorts, but this seemed about much more than scoring revenge for regular season frustration. And Ballincollig played that way, evidenced by the fact they led for almost 30 minutes of the 40 and defended their own boards with gusto.
Not that Killorglin weren’t pumped. It was a crack at a first national title for them too, and when they eventually reeled in Ballincollig’s lead to edge 48-45 in front with 2.23 left in the third quarter, they looked ready to break for home. 39-year- old guard Declan Wall was penetrating and feeding easy scores to 6’10” Bogdanovic and Jones, but all the while Ballincollig’s defence was dusting itself down and saying: Bring It On.
Ronan O’Sullivan and Dylan Corkery made three key defensive blocks in the second half, but the ultimate momentum shifter had a whiff of controversy about it. On four fouls, Killorglin’s American Grey was called for a barge on a fast-break when he looked to evade the contact, sitting down with 4.27 remaining.
Grey had landed the game’s first pair of three-pointers, and while Ciaran O’Sullivan was subbed in and out to allow him breathe, Ballincollig were hustling with intent, Colm Murray grabbing two and the bonus to give them a 16-9 first quarter lead.
Jokubaitis and his Croatian colleague Bogdanovic converted from outside and in tight to reduce it to a three-point game at 6.30 left in the half, but scores from Ronan O’Sullivan and Corkery were part of an eleven-point run for Ballincollig, giving them a 30-20 advantage. It was feisty. Jokubaitis might have feared the worst when he was called for an intentional after pushing Ronan O’Sullivan to the ground – it could have been an ejection on another day – but Ballincollig still led 33-24 at the half.
If it was a scrapfest before the break, it was breakneck fast after it. Jimmy Puha, who landed from France via Donegal, went coast to coast for two, but Wall, Bogdanovic and Jokubaitis were finding their gears in the third quarter even if the Lithuanian may have rued his 3 from 8 from the free throw line.
When Declan Wall tied it at 58-58 with a huge three in the final quarter, it seemed significant – and it was for exactly five seconds, until Clark responded in kind at the other end. Ballincollig were hanging tough and were too close now to let this go. Too much had been invested over many years to let the moment slip, said Kieran O’Sullivan, who rightly pointed to Ballincollig’s savvy switch defence down the stretch. With 2.05 left, Jokubaitis drained a three, and added one from the free throw line to tie the game at 62. Anyone who thought Clark was done though in a ding dong last quarter got their answer when he went over his Lithuanian rival Jokubaitis to nail a three, putting Ballincollig 65-62 in front, Corkery adding the layup to put daylight, at last, between the sides.
Bogdanovic kept Ballincollig honest with two but not enough to prevent the sound of the Cork drums pounding in the stands as Ciaran O’Sullivan – flu or no flu – buck-leapt towards them with the ball as the buzzer sounded.
On the floor, his father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin stood and hugged.
Cameron Clark (29), Ciaran O’Sullivan (11), Dylan Corkery (8), Ronan O’Sullivan (7).
Daniel Jokubaitis (27), Kevin Grey (11), Ivan Bogdanovic (10), Declan Wall (10).