Eagles dare to dream of landing first title
NOW more than ever, Ireland needs stories of hope. And as the recession continues to be felt in Irish basketball as much as elsewhere, this evening stands a rare story of triumph.
This time last year, UL Eagles were down and out -- out of the play-offs, with crowds having dwindled to as low as 100 or less.
But a year later, they find themselves in the hallowed halls of the National Basketball Arena and challenging for their first ever Men's Superleague title against Dublin kingpins Killester.
They went almost a whole season with just a single defeat, while attendances at the UL Arena have reached 700. And now the whole city is behind them.
"The buzz around the club is phenomenal," said head coach Tony Hehir, who has played a huge part in turning things around in his first season at the helm.
"The club was really struggling last year, financially and in every other way. But UL looked at what was happening here pre-season and decided to row in behind us.
"That was a massive boost, to get their sponsorship, and things just happened from there."
They certainly did: and the Limerick outfit got off to an incredible start to the season by embarking on an unbeaten run that lasted until December.
"We just had a really good pre-season, something which this club had not had in previous years," explains Hehir. "It's very much the same panel as last year, though, other than the signatures of Matt Hall, Stu Robbins and Glenn Wong."
Robbins has been arguably the star of the show, after the 6ft 11in centre signed from Bayern Munich's basketball team to join his close friend and fellow Welshman Hall. Hehir, though, insists that the home-based players have really made the difference.
"We wouldn't have had a huge budget this year, not the kind of budgets UCC Demons and Neptune would have had and I suppose that makes success all the more pleasing -- it's been on the back of commitment and not a huge budget.
"In that sense, the Irish players have been a huge part of what has happened this year."
They have been almost unstoppable, but there is one test which they have failed to overcome three times this season -- Killester.
The Dublin giants have a 100pc record over the Eagles, including a National Cup quarter-final triumph.
Hehir knows the odds are stacked against his side in this evening's final.
"They have the experience and the big funding behind them, but so did (semi-final opponents) UCC.
"It's down to whoever performs and whoever wants it most."
The Eagles' has been a most welcome good-news story in a sport that has seen its fair share of negative headlines domestically.
This evening, new headlines are there for the making.