A last second brace of Charley McGrath free-throws completed one of the great cup comebacks in recent memory, as Phoenix Rockets rose from the ashes to reach the InsureMyHouse.ie Women’s Division 1 National Cup final at the expense of Portlaoise Panthers, 65-63.
Remarkably, Breda Dick’s team held the lead just twice, crucially for the final time with one second remaining on the clock. McGrath stepped up to the line and showed the ice in her veins, capping a 23-7 scoring run to close the game and break the hearts of a fantastic Portlaoise Panthers team who controlled the contest for long stretches.
Jack Dooley’s Panthers leaned on the hot handed duo of Alyssa Marie Velles and Jessica Fressle in the opening quarter, establishing the three-point shot early and often and when his opposite number Breda Dick made the required adjustments, the versatile Laois side began to attack the paint, testing the mental toughness of the Lisburn based Rockets. Fressle and Velles performed a Batman and Robin act throughout the first salvos, complimenting one another to great effect, leaving an eight-point gap at the close of the opening quarter, 23-14.
The second quarter proved a more even affair. Phoenix Rockets gained a foothold. The coaching staff drew up plays for Georgie McGrath, Calisha Clarke and Charley McGrath, who rewarded the faith placed in them making consecutive buckets and a momentum shift looked to be on the cards. However, just when it appeared that the life had gone completely from the Portlaoise Panthers assault on the basket, an 11-3 run in the final three and a half minutes of the second quarter reasserted their earlier dominance. A buzzer beating three by the sharp-shooting Jessica Fairweather the sole retort by Phoenix Rockets, to send them to the changing rooms with continued hope of a comeback. 40-26 Portlaoise at the break.
Portlaoise Panthers emerged for the second half knowing parity would book a final appearance and that professional mindset was evident in their play during the third quarter. Every time Fairweather, McGrath or Clarke stepped up for Phoenix Rockets and their supporters eyed a comeback, Velles or Fressle hit an instant riposte. They were not alone. Jasmine Burke, Sarah Fleming, Shauna Slattery and Megan Dunne all made telling shots in important moments. That was until the final quarter began.
14-points down and with nothing to lose, Phoenix Rockets threw caution to the wind. An aggressive half-court defence paid dividends, instigating a 7-0 run and when Calisha Clarke made a lay-up with 7:47 left on the clock, the gap was just 5-points, bringing the Rockets bench to their feet. A Jasmine Burke three-pointer restored calm to the Portlaoise ranks, but that respite was short lived. Another extended scoring run, this time 9-0 drew the team’s level for the first time with three-minutes and change left on the clock, but the drama didn’t stop there. Fressle edged the Panthers back in front before an exchange of shots left the sides deadlocked and almost certain for overtime until an unsportsmanlike foul was called against Portlaoise as time expired.
Following a short consultation, the referees deemed the foul had been committed before the clock ran down and gave McGrath the opportunity, from which she made no mistake. A feast of entertainment for a packed gym in Upper Glanmire, they might just have witnessed the game of the season.
Phoenix Rockets: Anna Brennan; Fionnuala Toner; Maeve Deery; Jessica Fairweather; Ruby O’Donnell; Calisha Clarke; Georgie McGrath; Bronagh Barker; Rebecca Barker; Sophie Shortt; Aisling Murray; Charley McGrath.
Top Scorers: Jessica Fairweather (20), Calisha Clarke (16), Georgie McGrath (16) Charley McGrath (7), Rebecca Barker (4).
Portlaoise Panthers: Ruth O’Brien; Sarah Tuphy; Shauna Dooley; Elle Byrne; Neassa Towey; Megan Dunne; Shauna Burke; Jasmine Burke; Amy Byrne; Rachel Byrne; Shauna Slattery; Jess Fressle; Sarah Fleming; Shannon Quigley; Alyssa Velles.
Top Scorers: Alyssa Velles (24), Jess Fressle (23), Jasmine Burke (7), Sarah Fleming (4), Megan Dunne (3).