THEY did it the hard way but that made it all the sweeter.
Underdogs last year, hot favourites this time out, back-to-back President’s Cup and heroes of the Village regardless.
Tradehouse Central Ballincollig MVP Ian McLoughlin has had more than his share of tough days in recent years.
In basketball terms he watched on from the bench this time last season when he was a member of the Killorglin panel stunned by the Collig. The former Neptune stalwart has no hard feelings about his three-year stint in Kerry, which came about through his partner Maire who hails from Castleisland.
Yet it was a pretty grim afternoon 12 months ago when the Cork side pulled off an upset and he was hardly used.
Off the court, the Westmeath native has been through the ringer too. He was diagnosed with cancer at Christmas three years ago and had to undergo 15 radiation treatments to clear it.
The good times have followed since thankfully. This weekend was his sporting redemption song and his life has already been brightened up by the arrival of daughter Millie, the happiest girl in Tallaght on Saturday as her dad her up in one hand with the MVP bauble in the other.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be back up in the arena after what happened last year. It’s as special to me as the Neptune win. Before the game I noticed the banner hanging above the court with Neptune cup champions 2012-13 and there’s nothing like the feeling of being at your best on these big days.”
The 33-year-old got the nod for star man ahead of tenacious defender Dylan Corkery and powerhouse American Andre Nation for nailing absolutely critical scores as Ballincollig clawed back a nine-point deficit in the second quarter to lead by 13 in the fourth. He hit four out of five baskets in the third quarter, Ciarán O’Sullivan with the other, to pull his side to within a point, 44-43.
The Collig were only one down, 52-51 entering the fourth quarter after Nation’s effort just before the buzzer. At that juncture, the game was there was for taking.
Up stepped McLoughlin again – consecutive jumpers from outside the arc gave the champions a five-point lead and all the momentum as the crowd found their voice and Neil O’Sullivan and Nicky Bohane’s drums began to pound. ‘Bal-lin-collig, Bal-lin-collig…’
The Ballincollig Bear, aka Brian Murray, was also clearly winning the battle of the mascots down the sideline.
Nation and Corkery were incredible on defence in this period, swatting away lay-ups and stealing ball at the top of the key. Jack Kelly used his size to deny Tolka clean possession in the paint.
A flowing move concluded with a textbook corner three from Ciarán O’Sullivan and, followed by another McLoughlin close-range finish and a free-throw from Nation, suddenly Ballincollig had an unassailable 13-point advantage. This despite only managing a 20% from the field on threes.
“It was a real battle,” reflected McLoughlin. “They made us work very hard in the first half but we’ve put in savage work.
"Kieran O’Sullivan and Ciarán were very smart before the season even started. We were back a month early and that fitness work stood to us when the season started.
“Alright we lost a few league games lately but we’d put in another big block of work then over the past few weeks. The lads wanted us to be ready for when it really mattered.”
In the end they were, though they got a fright until they eventually hit their peak form. Last year against Killorglin three-pointers were decisive, this was grittier.
Corkery added a pair of baskets in the closing minutes while Colin Murray was on hand to pop in a lay-up as they cruised home.
“There’s a real squad there and that always matters in tight games,” added McLoughlin “Alex Chandler came in and made a contribution, you’ve Colin, Steven O’Sullivan and then you’d Pa (O’Mahony), Isaac (James) and Andrew O’Connor on the court at the end. Daniel O’Sullivan’s experience was really important when we needed to settle.”
O’Sullivan is vastly experienced and his nous helped steady his side in the opening quarter when Tolka raced 6-0 up and the holders were forcing plays, weighed down by the expectation. All the ups and downs through the years – particularly in terms of injuries in Daniel O’Sullivan’s case – mean that while Ballincollig are new to the National League they’re battle-hardened.
Their captain and figurehead Ciarán O’Sullivan sank eight of their first 20 points before Nation had found his rhythm and was brilliantly disciplined in the fourth quarter when he was just one indiscretion away from fouling out.
Nation might have been frustrated by Tolka clogging up his lanes for long spells but he stayed focused, especially at the defensive end.
Basically, they played like real champions. They’ve celebrated in style since, starting with a triumphant return to sponsors Tradehouse Central, after a quick stop in Healy's bar, on Saturday night.
Up the Village indeed.