Master Fulton has Star men believing force is with them
Such was the tension seemingly emanating from every crevasse in this top of the table clash there were times when Belfast Star coach Adrian Fulton appeared to be auditioning for Riverdance as he willed his men to an 84-81 victory over champions Tralee Warriors that leaves them top of the All Ireland Superleague.
If Michael Flatley is the Lord of the Dance then Fulton is surely the master Jedi of Irish basketball who has his men believing they can rise to a place not seen in 20 years. Going into 2020 the force is well and truly with Star.
One keen observer, Star's former Superleague winning coach Darren O'Neill commented: "Adrian out-coached his counterpart Pat Price, he got it spot on and his players showed the character you need at this level."
Billed as the game of the season so far with the leaders coming to town for a meeting with the second-placed side, it lived up to all expectations with a nail-biting vibrancy that lasted until the final throes of battle.
The pain of defeat was so strong that ex-Star man Paul Dick felt he couldn't handle a post-match interview, while his former team-mates celebrated on the other side of the court.
This was the night when Fulton's men cast aside the question marks over the ability to handle the big occasion.
Two dismal National Cup exits at the semi-final and quarter-final stages in successive years had led to suggestions they lacked that hard edge for the crunch moments. No longer.
"I think it's down to my lucky suit!" quipped Fulton. "Ever since we lost to Eanna in the Cup I've been wearing the suit and we've kept winning… I'm very proud of the lads, they showed what they're made of but I know we can play even better.
"This is a huge win for us. Our destiny is now in our own hands and I can honestly say that my Christmas dinner is going to taste that little bit better."
A point ahead at half-time, 41-40, midway through the third quarter Star were trailing 52-45 and missing three-pointers as Tralee's defence brought an intimidating presence. Fulton could sense the momentum swinging and called a time-out.
"I had to remind them what we had said all week," he added. "There was to be no taking a step back. We had to take the fight to them, to drive to the basket and credit to the lads because they did."
Delaney Blaylock, Aidan Quinn and Fulton's son CJ all got the message and within four minutes a 14-point turnaround had ensued. Blaylock (19) demonstrated he is a big game player, Quinn was outstanding with a game-high 24 and CJ pulled the strings just as his dad used to do when Star were at the top of Irish basketball in the late 1990s.
Legend Kieran Donaghy tied the game at 78 with 90 seconds remaining before Keelan Cairns (17) hit a crucial three-pointer.
Cairns and Conor Johnston were immense down the stretch, while Quinn held his nerve with just 17 seconds remaining to hit two game-winning free throws.
With a second remaining Dick still had time to throw up a three-point attempt which just missed - cue wild celebrations.