When you drive through the gates of the National Basketball Arena, you are greeted with an image of Claire Melia in the Ireland kit on a giant billboard.
On Sunday night, in the white heat of the final stretch in the premier women’s Cup final, she showed why.
The Address UCC Glanmire’s hopes of an eighth cup title looked sunk at the start of the final quarter, when DCU Mercy’s two Americans sank a brace of threes to pull them 14 points clear.
Yet somehow the Cork side produced a 21-point turnaround and Melia’s hands were all over it.
It included two vital blocks and 10 points of her 21 MVP tally (with 11 rebounds). However, it was her monster three-pointer, right on the shot-clock buzzer, which tied the game (60-all) with four minutes left, that finally jump-started Glanmire’s confidence after a period of throwing up bricks.
Then she produced a steal and captain Áine McKenna matched her three.
With DCU on team fouls, the Cork side took light like a bushfire and, through it all and even afterwards, Melia showed ice in her veins.
“Different people step up at different times and we just needed a bit of a lift in us, a bit of fight. Sure basketball can change anytime, you just have to keep pushing on and stay going to the final buzzer,” the Monasterevin native said nonchalantly.
Her move to join Glanmire this year caused a huge buzz and thus performance showed why.
The former Portlaoise star, now 22, went to the US on a college scholarship but couldn’t settle with homesickness. She is now studying early childhood care in Carlow IT, which means twice-weekly four-hour round-trips to Cork just for training.
However, she said she settled immediately because it’s such a “family club” — and no one has needed that more after her mother died last September.
“I can’t wait to bring the cup to her grave and let her see it,” she smiled. “Carrie [Shephard] lost her mother back in July, so the two of us are in it together.”
McKenna also played a key role in the turnaround, finishing on 13 points, while Tierney Pfirman, only signed since Christmas, produced nine of her 13 points in the final quarter, after DCU’s Bailey Greenburg (the game’s top scorer on 25) and Alaria Mayze (22) had previously overshadowed Glanmire’s Americans.
At times Melia had to tussle hard with Rachel Huijsdens, one of her best friends in the Irish set up, but when grit, craft, and leadership were needed most, she produced it.
It was a game that had been billed as the ‘battle of the brains’ between two of the Irish game’s smartest coaches. They last crossed swords when DCU ended Glanmire’s drive-for-five in 2018.
However, as Mark Scannell said, it is players, not coaches, who pull out clutch plays.
“You can plan and prepare for every type of game but that was like nothing I’ve ever seen. We started off brilliant in the first quarter but Mark [Ingle] is such a good coach and his team so well prepared that they’ll take away the [good] stuff you do.
“The tide was going out, we were 14 down, but what character,” he exclaimed.
“We went zone, which is uncharacteristic, for a little while and got a run, but then the girls themselves wanted to go back man-on-man and I trusted them.
“And then Claire’s shot. Sometimes you need something special on a big occasion to make it happen and she did.
“Then Áine backed it up and Tierney, who’d had a tough night at the office, managed to find a way into the game in the fourth quarter with that big rebound for a three-point play, getting an intentional foul. There was loads of little moments that swung it.”
Ingle could only lament the dramatic swing: “We got a great run and they got a great run. I know our scoring slowed down, but they got 29 in the last quarter and that’s too many. We had to foul them in the end, but we had six minutes there without a basket and in these games you have to keep chipping away.”
It was an extraordinary turnaround in a cracking final but, above all, will be remembered for Melia’s immense leadership and pivotal three.
Another of the day’s highlights was 17-year-old Sarah Hickey’s double-double (24 points and 23 rebounds) in the U20 final in a Waterford Wildcats team co-captained by older sister and senior international Kate (who chipped in with 14 herself) and coached by their mother, Jillian Hayes.
It came just four days after Sarah racked up 30 points and another MVP trophy with Mercy in the schools U19A Cup final, an honour that Jillian had won, almost to the day, 32 years ago.
Watching Sarah, especially her footwork and feint-and-rolls under the rim, is uncannily like watching her mum in her Irish international heyday. No greater barometer or compliment could you give her.
Griffith College Templeogue left Tallaght ruing some shocking first-quarter shooting — zero from 18 — to trail NUIG Mystics 21-4 and end their Division One hopes.
They only managed another 10 points before half time (42-14) and Paul O’Brien’s expertly coached and well-balanced Mystics romped to a 33-point victory. Good family genes were evident there too as Hazel Finn (14 points, 14 rebounds) was just pipped for MVP by American Courtney Cecere (15 points, 12 rebounds).
Finn, aged 18 and a Leaving Cert student, is the younger sister of senior international Dayna. She has played inter-county football at minor level but, while her sister and parents (John and Bernie) have all played senior Gaelic football for Mayo, Hazel is concentrating on basketball right now and is definitely another teen to watch for in future.
Some legends of the Irish women’s game also graced the floor when the Meteors and Naomh Mhuire Cup-winning teams of 1996 and 1997 were honoured. The former featured Karen Hennessy, Mary O’Mahony, and Angie McNally; and the latter included Ann-Marie and Ursula Kyne, and Edel O’Gorman.