Another piece of Irish basketball history was written this evening as the Ireland Under 18 women won their country’s first ever Division A basketball game and kept their hopes of retaining top tier status alive with a 53-52 point win over Sweden at the FIBA Under 18 Women’s European Championship Division A in Italy.
Today’s win was not only Ireland’s first ever win at Division A, but now propels them forward to a final battle to retain their Division A status tomorrow (Sunday) in a winner-takes-all showdown against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Dayna Finn delivered an incredible performance to drive Ireland over the line with a whopping 22 points, and it was apt that the Mayo woman was the one with the winning basket at the death for her team.
Indeed, it was an all-round superb team performance, with enormous contributions off the bench as well, and head coach Patrick O’Neill was still stunned after the final buzzer
“A little bit of history was made tonight – and we’re not done yet. I’m so unbelievably proud of this team!” he said. “The effort the girls put in was phenomenal. They dug deep and showed such resilience and mental fortitude to come back and take control - and of course, to get us our first ever win at Division A. The fans were amazing, to hear the singing as soon as we stepped on court was huge.”
It was an intense game right from the off, with scores at an absolute premium, with neither side breaking the deadlock until over four minutes had been played. Scores from Finn and Katie Williamson followed, before Maeve Phelan released a superb buzzer beater at the end of the quarter to see Ireland lead 10-8.
An even tighter second quarter followed, as Sweden retook the lead early, and the sides matched each other score for score as the clock ticked on. Bronagh Power Cassidy brought the sides level, before a score from Niamh Masterson again gave Ireland the edge at the end of the quarter, to lead by the minimum going in at half time, 20-19.
The third quarter continued in the same vein, with nothing separating the sides. A huge three from Annaliese Murphy helped keep Ireland’s nose in front, before four quick points from Finn and a superb finish by Maeve Ó Séaghdha sealed the advantage at 40-29 at the end of the third.
The early exchanges of the fourth quarter saw Ireland gain more traction, with some nice shooting early on. However, comeback queens Sweden weren’t going down without a fight, and with just under five minutes to play, they suddenly had it back to a three-point game (45-42). Two minutes later, the game was all square once more, and foul trouble for the Irish saw Sweden take the lead from the free throw line with just two minutes left. Superb play from Ella McCloskey and Finn sent Ireland ahead (51-50) with 41 seconds to play and Irish fans everywhere could barely watch as the remaining seconds began to tick down.
A steal and a lay-up by Sweden seemed to have dashed Irish hopes with 10 seconds to go, but a superb inbound from Enya Maguire found the hero of the hour, Dayna Finn, and she drove with style to the basket for that all-important winning score and the arena erupted as the full time buzzer sounded with Ireland ahead by the smallest of margins, 53-52.
The battle is far from over for the team however as they now face a winner-takes-all clash with Bosnia and Herzegovina tomorrow afternoon. The winner will retain Division A status for another year, while the loser of the game will be relegated back to Division B.
Over in Sarajevo meanwhile, it was another clash with Sweden for Irish fans, as the Ireland Under 16 men’s team also faced them in their third group game. There was an extra added twist to this encounter as the Sweden head coach is well-known Irish coach, Michael Bree.
The boys in green launched a fantastic comeback in the second half, and were unlucky in the end as time ran out, and they lost out 70-73 in their third game of the FIBA Under 16 European Championships.
Ireland had a slow start to the first quarter as Sweden took an early 8-0 lead until a foul on Rapolas Buivydas sent him to the line to get Ireland’s first score. A Cj Fulton and Eli Lenihan team-up saw Ireland close the gap, while Sweden’s aggressive defence saw them fall into early foul trouble. This suited Ireland as Buivydas, went to the free throw line once more to give Ireland their first lead of the game and they led by one at the end of the first.
The second quarter saw a fiery and ferocious Swedish side hit the court with an explosive start. As Ireland took their time to get back to the pace of the game, Sweden profited on every mistake, gaining scores on fast breaks and turnovers and suddenly, Ireland were facing a 10-point deficit. As Sweden began to tire, Ireland started to find holes in their defence drawing fouls to put Sweden into foul trouble once more but the Irish still trailed 28-37 at half time.
Ireland laid everything they had on the line in the third quarter as they dug deep to close the gap. Slick shooting by Collins and Fulton saw Ireland regain their one-point lead, but the uphill battle continued as Sweden’s Oliver Cupan’s three-pointers found the net nearing the end of the quarter to push them five points ahead.
It was an all-or-nothing final quarter, and after all the hard work Ireland had done in the third quarter, they were close to running on empty. Sweden once more exploded out onto the court, increasing their lead. Fulton was once more the answer to Ireland’s prayers as he hit a super shot and drew a foul to head straight to the line. Sweden found themselves on team fouls in the final minutes of the game and with strong defensive rebounds from Buivydas and Collins, Ireland managed to close the gap to just six points. Back-to-back shots from Fulton followed by a score from Lenihan saw Ireland in the lead with just one minute to go. Unfortunately, Sweden’s slick shooter Cupan found the net with a crucial three-pointer to see them run out 70-73 winners.