The “Billy Kelly” is synonymous with Irish Basketball. There is no need for a more detailed title – anyone with even limited knowledge of basketball in Ireland knows that it is the unofficial National U17 Boys championship. It started in the mid 1980’s and is named after a Cork Basketball official of the time. It pre-dated the current U18 and u20 Cups, and indeed, their predecessor, the U19 Sprite Cup. For many years, it was the only national competition offering underage teams a chance to compete on a 32 county basis… therefore, it became the “Holy Grail” of boys basketball in Ireland.
Moycullen’s first involvement came indirectly when current coach, John Cunningham, guested for a Corrib team coached by Mary Nihill in 1987. Johny Kelly, David Kelly’s dad was also on that team. Moycullen entered themselves for the first time in 1996 and have been virtually ever-present since. Cunningham and Sean Hynes coached the 1997 team led by Shane O’Donoghue to a first semi-final but it took many years for a first final appearance. That came in 2005 when Gerry Nihill was the coach. However, any hopes of victory went out the window when Gerry’s son, Cian, controversially picked up his fourth foul within the first three minutes! Gerry returned again with many of the current u20 National Cup winners on board in 2011 but they were well beaten by a strong Templeogue team. Nollaig Cunningham would have fancied his chances last year but his team fell to an inspired Maree performance in the quarter final. The “Holy Grail” continued to elude us.
Few would have predicted that the team of 2015 would be the one to make the breakthrough. While undoubtedly talented, they had never even reached a final in the Cork County Board tournaments. At local level, Maree (the National U16 champions from 2014) had a stranglehold on them, having never lost a competitive game to Moycullen while, nationally, Neptune have been building up their current bunch of U15/16/17’s as the best hope in 20+ years of returning them to their former glory. With other really strong team’s at U17 level such as Vincents, Castleisland, Fr Matthews, Templeogue and Sligo all entered for the tournament (and all of whom had defeated Moycullen at some stage), it would have been hard to predict a Moycullen victory. Thankfully, basketball games are decided on the court and on the day and predictions are really only opinions, not facts.
Moycullen were drawn in a pool with St Vincents, Ballincollig and Kilkenny Stars, needing to finish in the first two to qualify for the quarter finals. First up was a very strong Vincent’s team that had lost the u16 All Ireland to Maree and had since been strengthened with the arrival of two international panelists from Drogheda. The teams had met in February in Sligo with Moycullen leading for much of the game before Vincent’s reined them in and won by 8 in the end. This game followed the same pattern with Moycullen starting extremely well to lead by 4 at the half and 3 at three quarters only to run out of steam in the 4th and lose by 7. While disappointing, the game gave the team real belief they were in with a fighting chance in the tournament.
Next up came Ballincollig who Moycullen had lost a close encounter to in Tralee with a heavily depleted team. Expecting to win, their defence reflected that complacency as they struggled to match Ballincollig one on one. Ballincollig went score for score for the first three quarters and only trailed by one going into the 4th. Eventually, despite never getting their defence up to an acceptable level, Moycullen outscored them by 3 in the fourth and escaped with a 4 point win – 65-61.
With Ballincollig having beaten Kilkenny by 5, Moycullen knew (or thought they did) exactly what they had to do to qualify. Just not lose by more than 3. They duly set about this against a tired Kilkenny team and had established a 15 point lead at the half. However, Coach Cunningham’s attention had now turned to the other court where the unthinkable was happening. Ballincolig were leading Vincents. A narrow win for Ballincollig would have put Moycullen out regardless of the result of the Kilkenny game. This still looked a possibility deep in the fourth as Ballincollig still led but, as Moycullen closed out a 51-25 win, Vincents eventually got on top of a gritty Ballincollig side to pull away for a 10 point victory of their own. Crisis over, it was time for rest, relaxation and a good night’s sleep.
Having finished second in their Pool, Moycullen were expecting to crossover with Maree the following morning. However, Fr Matthews had sprung a big surprise in pool A by beating both Maree and Templeogue to top the group. Facing a large home crowd and a Fr Mathews team brimful of confidence, it was going to be a tough challenge. The challenge was made even bigger when Connor Curran picked up a second foul early in the first quarter, forcing Moycullen to switch him off Matthew’s U18 international, Ryan Leonard. However, Eoghan Kelly stepped up and despite being undersized, did a fantastic job in limiting Leonard to just 8 points for the game. This, along with the efforts of John Hackett and David Kelly on the boards, was the key factor as Moycullen edged ahead by 1 at the half. The third quarter saw John Hackett and young James Lyons combine for 15 of Moycullen’s 17 points as they pushed the lead out to 5 points. Connor Curran scored all of Moycullen’s 9 points in the last quarter as they held off the Matthews rally to win by 4, 43-39.
The reward for beating Matthews was a semi-final against Neptune, arguably the tournament’s most impressive team to date and pre-tournament favourites. Moycullen initially struggled to contain young David Murray on the boards and trailed at the end of the first quarter on a 16-11 scoreline. The game turned in the second quarter. David Kelly began to get a handle on Murray while Moycullen collapsed in and suffocated Neptune’s driving game. They held Neptune to 4 points in the quarter to establish a 23-20 half time lead. The third quarter saw them extend their lead with Connor Curran hitting two big three’s and John Hackett also providing six points. They won the quarter by 5 to lead by 8. The fourth quarter saw Neptune battle hard to get back in the game with Sean Jenkins proving virtually unguardable. However, Moycullen were playing with great maturity and another three from Curran and a series of free throws from Curran and Eoghan Kelly saw them close out a magnificent 55-49 win.
Maree had gotten over the shock of a defeat in their first game to defeat Vincent’s comfortably in their quarter final and Castleisland (a little less comfortably) in their semi, setting up an all Galway final. In most of their recent clashes with Maree, Moycullen have fallen behind early in the game. This time, brim full of confidence from their two earlier wins, they were determined to start well. Hackett and Kelly shared 10 points inside while Eoghan Kelly was edging his battle at the guard position with Eoghan Rockall. Up 7 at the end of the quarter, things looked good for Moycullen. The second and third quarters were nip-and-tuck as both teams spread their scores well. However, crucially, Moycullen still led by 6 going into the 4th, 39-33.
Moycullen had been in this position before without achieving the end result. However, with Max Brennan doing a good containing job on Rockall and Eoghan Kelly running the game from the point, it was clear this was a different Moycullen team. There was one scare left however as, with three minutes on the clock, Kelly was forced out of the game through injury. However, Connor Curran, Max Brennan and the superb James Lyons shared the ball handling duties and the team defence proved well up to the task, limiting Maree to just 8 points in a quarter in which they scored 11 themselves. In the end, the margin was 9, 50-41, and the “Holy Grail” had finally been found.
There were many factors that contributed to this victory but the single biggest one was the team’s ability throughout the knockout stages to limit the opposition to one tough look most times down the floor. This came from good ball pressure by the guards and a hugely committed rebounding effort from all.
With the “Billy Kelly” won, the focus now turns to the U18 Cup next November. Moycullen will have the added pressure of being one of the favourites. However, regardless of what happens there, they will always be the first Moycullen team to win a “Billy Kelly”. The “Holy Grail” has been found…..
Moycullen: Eoghan Kelly (Capt), Connor Curran, James Lyons, John Hackett, David Kelly, Max Brennan, Ronan Clancy, Brian Garvey, Thomas Walsh, Evan Somers, Thomas Hackett, Ladmy SIla (inj)
Moycullen 42 – St Vincents 49
Ballincollig 57 – Moycullen 61
Moycullen 51 – Kilkenny Stars 25
Moycullen 43 – Fr Matthews 39
Moycullen 55 – Neptune 49
Moycullen 50 – Maree 41