| 12.7°C Dublin

Spike tale captures hearts in America

Once you get into March Madness you're hooked for good. American college basketball's finals tournament, which starts with 68 teams and whittles them down to a Final Four in a couple of hectic weeks, is so addictive because it's such an unfailing source of upsets, comebacks and last-second winners.

But it really outdid itself on Monday night last in Atlanta as outsiders Michigan took on a powerful Louisville team in the final. When Michigan's star player Trey Burke got into foul trouble early on, coach John Beilein decided to bring on Michael 'Spike' Albrecht.

The 5ft 11ins Albrecht had averaged less than two points a game in his Michigan career, had never scored more than seven and had failed to score on 19 occasions. Only two colleges had offered him a scholarship. But he dominated the rest of the first half, hitting 17 points to give Michigan a half-time lead and become an unlikely national hero.

In the second half, reality caught up on Michigan, the youngest of the 68 competing teams, as Louisville overhauled them to win 82-76 with Albrecht failing to add to his 17 points. Yet the abiding memory was that first-half game of a lifetime by the player who was once laughed at when he told fellow airline passengers he was travelling to take up a basketball scholarship.

Then again Albrecht does come from Indiana, a state where basketball provokes the same kind of fervour that Gaelic football does in Kerry and hurling does in Kilkenny. It's also the state which provided the setting for the great sporting movie, Hoosiers, starring Gene Hackman as a washed-up coach who inspires a team of no-hopers to performances they didn't know they had in them. On Monday, Hoosiers came to life.

* * * * *

Looking at a smiling, healthy Linda Byrne at a publicity gig on Friday for today's Great Ireland Run, it's hard to believe that just a few months ago she collapsed at home with gastroenteritis and was rushed to hospital. It was an emergency situation; she was treated for dehydration and forced to rest for ten days.

"I was afraid I wouldn't make the Euros," said Byrne. But she did and the illness was a blessing in disguise. The rest did the Olympian the world of good and she bounced back better than ever to run some of her best times and win team gold at the European Cross-Country Championships.

* * * * *

Cork's John Cleary has the Munster under 21 football championship sussed. He first won the provincial title as a player in 1982 and served as a selector during Cork's four-in-a-row march from 2004 to 2007. Last Wednesday, he managed the latest batch of young Rebels to another title win over Tipperary following the three earlier titles he had led the county to in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

* * * * *

IT'S that time of the year in England, when pundits list the Bargain Buys of the Season, and this year there are outstanding Irish candidates in the Championship and League One.

Crystal Palace were last in the Championship table, having played three, lost three, and shipped nine goals by the end of August, when they signed centre-back Damien Delaney from Ipswich Town on a short-term contract. They proceeded to embark on a lengthy unbeaten run, which saw them shoot up the table, and they have been in the promotion shake-up ever since.

Corkman Delaney, who even weighed in with a few goals, had his short-term deal extended to 2014; the manager who signed him, Dougie Freedman, moved to Bolton, while the manager who let him go from Ipswich, Paul Jewell, was sacked and replaced by Mick McCarthy.

In League One, the big story was Paddy Madden's prolific goalscoring for Yeovil. When he joined them in October from Carlisle (initially on loan), Yeovil were on a six-game losing run and in the process of destroying what had been a good start. As soon as Madden joined their ranks, his goals shot them back into the promotion race, and they seem certain to contest the play-offs at least.

Also worth a mention on this theme is another Cork-born centre-back, Alan Bennett, who joined Wimbledon at the end of January when they were last in the table. The arrival of Bennett has made the Dons a much tougher proposition, and they are now in a good position to retain their League Two status.

Eamonn Sweeney, Marie Crowe, Damian Lawlor and Seán Ryan

ssport@independent.ie

Irish Independent