Irish Basketball SuperLeague
Belfast Star 84-80 Ballincollig

BELFAST Star went six points clear at the top of the Northern Conference of the Irish Super League after narrowly defeating Ballincollig’s Emporium Cork Basketball 84-80 in an overtime thriller at La Salle College on Saturday.

Adrian Fulton’s side now go on a daunting three-game road trip starting with a visit to Sligo this weekend and followed by two journeys to Cork to face Neptune and Demons. That will then bring them back home to fortress La Salle for their final regular season game against Dublin’s Templeogue.

This will be an exceptionally tough run of games to close out the season and, by the end of it, Star’s legions of followers will be hoping that there will have been no slip-ups to prevent the side barnstorming their way into the play-offs, something that has been looking increasingly likely over the past weeks.

To bring that play-off berth a little closer, Star had to come from behind several times to gain an exhausting win over Ballincollig last week.

With the La Salle gym packed to capacity, the game paid the fans’ devotion back in spades when it served up a truly heart-stopping final few minutes.

“Who needs the NBA when we have games like this at home,” quipped one punter on social media afterwards.

And in a week when Le Bron James broke America’s scoring record, it was left to another American – Shon Briggs of Star – to power his way to 22 ‘most valuable points’ to salvage the win for his side.

Briggs wasn’t alone in his heroics on the night of one of Belfast’s best games in recent years.

Max Richardson put on another great show with 19, and Aidan Quinn, who has been in sparkling form of late, tallied 14 points of his own. Six foot nine big man Oisin Kerlin, who hit 10, was again a giant in both defense and offense.

It was a game that was always in the balance, with an incredible 19 lead changes and 15 ties throughout the pulsating affair.

Indeed, right from the tip off, it was apparent that Star would have their work cut out to match both the strength and tenacity of the visitors who were themselves vying to gain a playoff slot.

Scores were even at 23 apiece after a first quarter that saw Star point guard Conor Quinn quickly rack up three fouls that would then keep him on the bench for most of the first half.

Ballincollig indeed took advantage of his absence in the second quarter when they went to the interval five points ahead, 41-36.

Quinn was sent back into the game at the start of the third and his presence was immediately felt.

Kerlin and Richardson hit a quick six points each to push Star ahead briefly before the visitors came back to lead by three going into the fourth, 60-57.

The fourth was a nail-biting affair with scores being traded freely before Richardson’s crucial two-pointer tied the game and sent it to overtime at 75 apiece.

By this stage, the spectators’ nerves were well and truly frayed ahead of the final frenetic five minutes of overtime.

Star old-boy Keelan Cairns began OT by putting Ballincollig two points up from the free throw line.

Aidan Quinn was then fouled attempting a triple. He duly converted all his shots to give Star the lead by one. John Dawson then drained a big three for the visitors – Cork two up and looking strong.

However, Oisin Kerlin levelled from close in with 44 seconds left on the clock.
Star then blocked Ballincollig before Shon Briggs drove his side two points ahead with nine seconds left.

One attack left for Cork who somehow rushed into a failed three-pointer. Conor Quinn won the rebound, took a foul and hit both free shots to see Star emerge 84-80 and maintain their unbeaten La Salle record.

Afterwards, Star head coach Adrian Fulton hailed the character shown by his team.

“Tonight was a great advertisement for the Super League,” he said.

“Ballincollig are a terrific team and it went right to the wire, but I thought we showed great character to close out the game.

“We felt it was a really important win for us because of the tough three-week road trip ahead.

“I was immensely proud of the players and the way they took responsibility to tough it out at the end.

“Shon Briggs was immense as usual and of course it’s terrific to see Aidan Quinn back to his very best after his injury lay-off last year.”