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Classic thrills and spills as Towson Tigers win Belfast basketball series

Over 9,000 fans from all over Ireland descended on the SSE Arena to watch last weekend's Belfast Classic
Andy Watters

THE first points of Saturday's Belfast Classic ‘Championship Game' came from Eddie Keith the second. He nailed a three-pointer for the Towson Tigers less than a minute into their nailbiter with Manhattan College AKA ‘The Jaspers'.

I don't know if he was there, but Eddie Keith the first must have been a proud man. Fair play to him and his missus because between them they have produced a strapping six-foot-five-inch 'balling behemoth with fast hands and dancing feet and his early score proved to be the difference in an entertaining tussle with Manhattan (the college is actually based in the Bronx, New York).

It was Mike Morsell who got the winner though. There were 1.5 seconds left on the clock when he scored from the baseline to give the Tigers a 56-55 lead and their bench emptied like they'd won the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

Yes I'll admit, I'd never heard of the Larry O'Brien Trophy (it's awarded to the winner of the NBA finals) before Saturday, but then my experience of ‘live' basketball amounted to watching the fledgling Poyntzpass Pumas U12s play Newry one Saturday morning so that's understandable.

Like a lot of other rookies in a very decent turnout at the SSE Arena on Saturday I learned a lot and enjoyed the joyful attacking freedom they sides played with. The weekend's games will have done the sport in Ireland a power of good.

Going by GAA tops, there were fans from right across the country in attendance – Kerry, Cork, Dublin, Armagh, Down, Mayo, Donegal… There were lots of basketball clubs there too and they enjoyed two competitive games with Friday's beaten semi-finalists, Holy Cross Crusaders and La Salle Explorers, getting the ball rolling in the third/fourth place play-off.

Of course, Saturday wasn't just a game, two games, of basketball – it was an entertainment event. Each game consisted of 40 minutes of actual playing time but that was extended to two hours with constant tactical and media time-outs and a half-time interval.

During the breaks the crowd joined in with ‘bongo cam', ‘dab cam', ‘kiss cam' and ‘air guitar cam' on the big screens and then there were performances from gymnasts, former St Gall's player Dave Hopla trying to break his own record for consecutive baskets, the full-on Jaspers marching band (although they didn't actually march) and their cheerleader teams.

The Howson players enjoyed the experience as much, if not more, than their new fans.

“Wow, what a trip,” read a team statement.

“What an amazing experience this was.

“This will be a trip I will never forget and not because we were able to win the inaugural Belfast, what we will remember most about this trip is the incredible hospitality we were shown by the locals.

“Everybody was nice to us.

“It brought us a lot of joy to see the smiles on the kids' faces when we signed autographs for them or took selfies with them. We all felt like celebrities.”

The Tigers and the Jaspers added an extra level of skill and flair to complement the increased intensity levels after the third/fourth place play-off which began the action on Saturday.

In that game Holy Cross Crusaders and La Salle Explorers had battled it out to the final seconds before La Salle held on to win 58-54.

Philadelphia college La Salle included Tralee's Cian O'Sullivan on their roster and the 7'2” colossus – the tallest player at the Belfast Classic - started the game for them. O'Sullivan did what four-time Kerry All-Ireland winner Kieran Donaghy (described in the build-up on a Belfast radio station as “Ireland basketball star”) could not by accepting a scholarship to the US.

He played as a power forward and transitioned up the court from offense to defence in half-a-dozen loping strides as the game swung from end to end. Unfortunately he didn't see much of the ball and didn't feature in the second half so, who knows, we may see him back on his home sod in the green and gold of the Kingdom yet.

But his team-mates hung on to win, claim third place and set the scene for the Championship Game. Eddie Keith the second started it and Mike Morsell (with just over a second left) finished it. The fans loved it, the players loved it and they'll be back for more next year.

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