O’Loughlins Hotel Panthers took another massive step in their hopes of retaining the National Cup title they won just over eleven months ago by defeating last years semi-finalists Fr Matthews in their own backyard.
The Portlaoise ladies earned this hard fought victory as they outlasted Matthews down the stretch to keep their double hopes alive. Panthers dug deep in the final quarter to take this victory and set up a semi-final meeting with NUIG Mystics in five weeks time.
O’Loughlins Hotel Panthers hit the road early on Sunday morning knowing that their opponents had already accounted for National League side IT Carlow in the previous round. The early tip-off time was never going to suit the visitors and this showed in their performance early in the first quarter as Fr Matthews took an early 10-2 lead.
Baskets from Louise O’Connor and Rachel Finn settled the home team into the game with a single basket from Tracey Fallon the only points in reply from Panthers in the first five minutes. As Portlaoise looked to find the rhythm that has seen them start their campaign unbeaten they were dealt a massive blow in the fifth minute of the game as their American star player Kelsey Wolfe left the game with a bad ankle injury which would keep her out of the remainder of the game.
It was now time for the rest of the squad to step up and show their ability to win under severe pressure. With Tracey Fallon also sitting out with two fouls early on, Sinead Nihill stepped up inside to start the fightback with baskets in the paint.
Fast break points from Maeve O’Sullivan and Sinead Melia were cancelled out by four points from point guard Mai O’Leary as it looked like both sides would share the spoils after ten minutes, only for player-coach Fiona Lynch to drain a three to give Matthews a three point advantage, 17-14 at the end of the first.
After weathering the early storm Portlaoise looked to stamp their authority on the game at the start of the second quarter. The sides traded three pointers with O’Leary and Lynch for Matthews and Catherine O’Sullivan for Panthers accurate from range.
Mai O’Leary continued to be a thorn in the visitors side as she continued to score off the dribble with a further four points in the quarter. Portlaoise were relying heavily on their outside game to stay in touch as Maeve O’Sullivan (two) and Sinead Melia (one) added more three pointers to keep them within a basket of the Cork women.
Five points from ex-Irish International Dearbhla Breen pushed the gap out to six points coming up to the break and the crowd were sensing that the upset was on the cards. Both defenses were under pressure throughout the half in this high scoring game and the final result was going to come down to which team could shut down their opposite numbers for the remainder of the game.
Portlaoise cut the lead to four points at the end of the first half with Nihill on the put back off her own shot. The half time score was 39-35 in favour of the Rebels.
The third quarter was again another close affair with both sides eventually getting on top in defense. Fr Matthews continued to press up on Portlaoise after a score which put the visitors under immense pressure. While the Panthers ladies were overturned on a few occasions leading to run in lay-ups by O’Leary and Finn, they also cut through the Matthews defense with quick scores of their own through Fallon and Maeve O’Sullivan.
Sinead Nihill continued to keep Portlaoise in the game with some great mid-range shooting but Matthews continued to find the answer with further baskets from O’Leary and Lynch to stay ahead going into the final quarter. Portlaoise cut the gap to just three points with all to play for in the fourth period.
The Portlaoise girls entered the final ten minutes fired up, unwilling to believe that this was the end of their Cup run. The belief within the team was evident and the players knew that if they could step up their defense and finally take the lead that this would be the momentum change that would see them through.
The introduction of Deirdre Tomlinson gave Panthers a new energy as she ran the floor opening up the Matthews defense. This was quickly followed up by a massive three pointers from team captain Catherine O’Sullivan which saw Panthers take the lead for the first time in the game which was to be a key moment.
The Portlaoise defense closed up shop and overturned the Cork women time and again. Fr Matthews found themselves in real trouble with their foul count and with just three minutes of the final quarter gone were already on team fouls. The pressure seemed to have got to the Cork women as Portlaoise continuously found themselves shooting from the line for the remainder of the game.
Portlaoise shot twenty free throws to finish the contest with fifteen successful shots to continue to extend their lead. It was at the defensive end that brought most satisfaction to both Portlaoise coaches as the Matthews ladies could only manage five points in reply to Portlaoise’s twenty six.
This was a brilliant win considering the position the ladies found themselves early in the game but with so many experienced player in the ranks the ladies continued to plug away throughout the game to finally claim victory by eighteen points on a scoreline of 77-59.
Next up for O’Loughlins Hotel Panthers is a National League home game in St. Marys Hall next Saturday night at 7pm. This game will see Oblate Dynamos come to town and will form part of the 50 year celebration of Portlaoise basketball which kicks off at 5pm in the old St. Marys Hall. Your continued support is greatly appreciated.
O’Loughlins Hotel Panthers: Roisin O’Connell, Maeve O’Sullivan, Mary Callanan, Deirdre Tomlinson, Tracey Fallon, Sinead Melia, Sinead Nihill, Catherine O’Sullivan, Kelsey Wolfe, Nicola Farrell.