THIS was Irish basketball at its best.
Two of the greatest clubs in the history of the game, going full-tilt from the off in front of a packed Mardyke right until the last play. It was a dazzlingly brilliant at times and frustratingly scrappy at others, as derbies often are, and finished 91-88 in Neptune's favour. Fine margins.
There was the youthful swagger of Neptune’s highly-rated duo Darragh O’Sullivan and Cian Heaphy, who were electric in the first half, contrasted with the nous of Demons’ player-coach Colin O’Reilly and Kyle Hosford as they led the fightback in the second.
The fourth quarter could have gone either way. Neither team is as strong as they’ve been in the past, with both out of contention for the league, yet we were a Hosford shot away from overtime. It was never less than engrossing.
Demons fumed at a few calls by the referees but Paul Kelleher’s Neptune will feel they were the better-balanced side overall. Latvian Girt Lazdans fouled out in the fourth quarter and Demons’ lack of depth was exposed.
Roy Downey made a critical contribution from the bench, which included a deft jumper after a spin move and a sweet three on the buzzer, while young Owen Connolly swished a pair of three-pointers when the stakes were highest. Lehmon Colbert – who this season switched from Demons to Neptune – used his heft to draw the free-throws that ultimately kept the hosts at bay, which made him the game's most influential performer.
If O’Sullivan and Heaphy showed us early on exactly why they are expected to head to college in the States when the visitors went 54-43 ahead by the break, Hosford and O’Reilly pulled Demons back from the brink. A monster three from 39-year-old Niall O’Reilly, Colin’s brother, during a run when American Brandon Watts’ shots started dropping shifted the momentum from Neptune.
While Demons will, with some justification, argue they didn’t get the breaks they deserved, down the stretch their resources were stretched thin. The promising David Lehane, still U18, got minutes in the first half but they operated off six players from there on.
In contrast, Kelleher could afford to hold Downey, returning from injury, until the second half, utilise Ger Noonan at various stages, and have Gary Walsh on the floor in the fourth quarter to shoot a pair of all-net free-throws.
This was a result C & S Neptune desperately needed to grind out, having lost the season opener to their rivals on their own court, and after getting pipped to the post in their last two games against Templeogue and Tralee. It will be interesting to see how high they can climb up the table from here.
Both clubs have five wins and seven defeats and won't be involved when Cork is the location for next weekend's National Cup semi-finals but there is still a bit of basketball left in the campaign.
Beyond that, while Demons possess two of the best Irish basketballers in O'Reilly and Hosford they will have to recruit heavily before next season. Neptune, for all their depth, will likely lose 19-year-olds Heaphy and O'Sullivan as they pursue their American dream.