Portlaoise Panthers U-18 girls team made the early morning trip to Cork on Saturday in the hope of emulating the Senior team of the past two years in making it to the National Cup final in two weeks time.
In their first ever attempt at this age level the girls had beaten excellent opposition on their way to the semi final and were aware that any team that reaches this stage of the competition were also there on merit.
Unfortunately home advantage counted for a lot in this game as Brunell took the game by ten points after shooting high percentages throughout the game which Portlaoise couldn’t match for certain periods of the game.
The first quarter was all Brunell as they settled into the game with relative ease and comfortable in their surroundings. The Cork girls were at a slight disadvantage height wise but were extremely quick, mobile and accurate from all ranges. They quickly took the upper hand in the first quarter shooting from mid range by Andrea Moynihan and Ciara O’Shea while Amy Murphy drove to the basket on three occasions to give the home side an early 8-0 lead.
Portlaoise were working well in their offence but the final finish eluded them early on but signs were promising and they never dropped their heads. An early time-out by Portlaoise seemed to be the perfect remedy as they came out stronger and concentrated on both ends of the floor. They began to draw fouls on the offensive end with Brunell finding themselves in early foul trouble.
Claire Melia’s sheer presence inside demanded their upmost attention throughout which left space for her team mates to attack the board. Portlaoise scored four from six from the free throw line with Melia, Maeve Phelan and Aishling Mc Cauley getting off the mark.
Brunell continued to dominate the Portlaoise defence putting up a massive twenty six points in the quarter with Sarah Morrissey and Kelly Murphy scoring two baskets each. Portlaoise had big baskets from Erone Fitzpatrick and Maeve Phelan which left fourteen points in it after ten minutes of play but with three quarters to make up the deficit, Portlaoise knew they had the players to do it.
Portlaoise came out all guns blazing at the start of the second quarter and had eventually got to grips with the occasion and the task at hand. Claire Melia led the comeback as she dominated play inside, often having to take on three opponents to get to the basket.
Nine points by Melia and four from Sekinat Shabowale brought Portlaoise storming back into the game but Brunell continued to keep their noses in front with Moynihan and Sinead Warren getting out on the break to capitalise on Panthers turnovers. A big three pointer from Fitzpatrick spurred the crowd into life as the lead was cut to just five points with two minutes remaining in the quarter.
The final minutes were pretty even with both sides trading scores with Amy Murphy continuing to cause problems for Portlaoise while Melia and Phlean replied from the free throw line to leave the score 41-35 in favour of Brunell at the break.
A big third quarter was required by Portlaoise if they were to stay with the home side but this didn’t materialise as Brunell regrouped once again and went on scoring spree with Amy Murphy leading the charge once again. She put up a massive thirteen points in the quarter, scoring on the break, inside the key and even from the three point line.
Brunell had pulled out to a 56-41 lead midway through the half with Panthers finding it hard to put scores on the board. The Panthers girls continued to work hard and Melia was a constant threat inside as she drew fouls throughout and punished Brunell from the line.
Jennifer O’Neill and Orlaith O’Donovan came back into the game and the defence eventually got control on the Brunell attack while Jennifer O’Neill and Claire Melia added further scores to leave the score at 63-46 in favour of the hosts with just ten minutes remaining.
An early charge was required if Portlaoise were to close the massive seventeen point deficit but for every score that Portlaoise notched up, Brunell quickly replied at the other end. Aisling Mc Cauley and Maeve Phelan were the first on the scoreboard in the quarter but Laura Morrissey and Amy Murphy replied for Brunell.
The game went two minutes without a score as both defences contained their offensive counterparts. Portlaoise’s never say die attitude saw them continue to work hard in the final minutes as Erone Fitzpatrick got out on the break to score twelve points with Orlaith O’Donovan getting the last basket of the game.
Portlaoise came up short by a margin of ten points which was disappointing for all the players, coaches and supporters but the magnitude of the achievement in their first time in this competition has to be recognised as most of this panel are underage again next year which bodes well for their chances of going a few steps further and maybe even lifting the title in January 2017.
Portlaoise Panthers Team: Jennifer O’Neill, Ellen Dunphy, Ailbhe Griffen, Sekinat Shabawale, Erone Fitzpatrick, Maeve Phelan, Aisling McCauley, Orlaith O’Donovan, Rebecca Grant, Claire Melia, Ellen Healy.