New signing Timothy Stewart in action for Portlaoise Panthers.
Men’s National League made its return to St Marys Sportshall on Saturday night with Portlaoise Panthers stepping back into National competition for the first time in five years.
Fr Matthews of Cork were the visitors for the first game of the season and this seasoned outfit showed their composure down the stretch to secure the win, and ruin Portlaoise’s homecoming night. Nothing had separated the sides for the first three quarters but a final quarter burst gave the Cork side a more than flattering thirteen point win.
A large crowd turned out to see this young Portlaoise Panthers side with the addition of American Timothy Stewart and Lithuanian Mantis Vilimas take to the floor with the majority making their debut at this level. The home side counted on the experience of the two foreign players in the first quarter as Vilimas laid the foundations to his side's opening exchanges, cutting through the Matthews defence time and again.
Vilimas accounted for fourteen of Portlaoise’s opening quarter points, hitting two three-pointers in the process. Timothy Stewart also got his season off to a good start getting to the board to add a further four points to the score.
For all of Panthers positive play on offence they were being put under immense pressure at the other end. Under the guidance of former Super League player Michael McGinn at the point position Matthews ran some solid offensive plays with McGinn himself shooting two for two from the three point line.
Portlaoise were finding the increase in pace and standard tough to deal with and put Fr Matthews to the line where they went four-from-four early on. The quarter was tit-for-tat with the home crowd getting behind every score and interception giving the home team a big lift. A late score from Barry Doeffe gave the visitors a one point lead with ten minutes played in this entertaining game.
The second quarter saw the visitors step up hard on the Portlaoise men and turnovers began to creep in with the Corkmen running in some easy scores. The defence was still a problem for Portlaoise as the guards were quicker off the first step which allowed them the opportunity to get into the key.
With Portlaoise’s bigs stepping up to help, it left space in behind where Matthews just couldn’t miss, Chris O’Flynn hitting two in a row from close range. But Portlaoise remained composed on offence and looked really good when they worked through their plays. Timothy Stewart was still causing major problems in the attack picking off another six points and he drew a lot of attention, which left Jack Dooley open outside where he drained his second three pointer of the game.
The penetrating offensive play was again proving beneficial as Jack Scully received a few pop-passes and duly finished his chances. The game was still as tight as ever as cool heads on both ends were winning out, Fr Matthews continued to match whatever Portlaoise threw at them. By half time Matthews had increased their lead to two points on a scoreline of 40-38 with both sides happy to still be in with a chance of winning their first game.
A nervous third quarter was expected as it is usually seen as the most important quarter to make your move. Low percentages from the free throw line was proving costly for the home side as every visit resulted in 50% or less conversion rate while their counterparts were showing a high accuracy rate from the line.
With both teams getting to grips with each other a little bit more as the game progressed, scores were at a premium. Offensive play was getting a little bit sloppy with both defences really stepping up to the plate. Fr Matthews were slowly pulling away with the lead rising to six points for the first time in the game following some smart play and fine finishing by Donal McCarthy and Declan Cathel.
A big spot up three pointer on the break from Timothy Stewart where he converted while being fouled gave him the rare opportunity of getting a four point play. Again though Portlaoise’s low free throw conversion rate was really hurting them and what made it worse was that Matthews were taking full advantage from the other free throw line. Portlaoise got the lead back down to two points at the end of the third with scores from Benny Carroll and Kyle Burke.
The game was finely in the balance heading into the final quarter with just the one score separating the sides. This game was played at a high intensity level throughout and both teams required to go deep into their bench.
A slow start to the quarter saw Matthews get an easy lay-up on the break and to make matters worse Portlaoise turned over possession straight off the inbound giving Matthews the chance to put the lead out to six points which they never relinquished. The re-introduction of Dylan Dunne to the floor saw him get his first score in a Panthers jersey as he drove down the lane to make his mark.
He quickly added two massive three pointers in between a Benny Carroll lay-up but unfortunately costly errors and some smart offensive moves by the visitors were proving the difference down the stretch. Portlaoise needed to shore up in defence but just couldn’t find the stops to punch a hole in the Matthews lead.
It was the conversion from the free throw lines on both ends that seemed to separate these sides as the Corkmen went eight from ten in the final quarter which pushed their lead out to thirteen points in the end. Portlaoise should be extremely happy with the performance in the first three quarters and after their showing will understand that they can mix it with teams at this level but will have to work hard to remain consistent for longer periods.
A big local derby awaits them next Sunday as they face up to IT Carlow at home at 6pm. Both sides will be looking for their first win off the back of losses in the opening weekend of play. It’s sure to be a great game so get down and support the lads.
Portlaoise Panthers Team: Jack Dooley, Dylan Dunne, Benny Carroll, Trevor Swayne, Peter Duignan, Jack Scully, Tim Stewart, Kyle Burke, Craig Scully, David Glynn, Liam Kinsella, Mantis Vilimas.
Portlaoise Panthers Fixtures:
Sunday 24th September – Mens National League
Portlaoise Panthers v IT Carlow, St Marys Sportshall, 18.00.