With UCD back in action in the league following their disappointing cup final loss to UCC Demons, Jim Hill looks at how Marian bounced back in style against Belfast Star

With UCD Marian and Belfast Star vying for top-four positions in the Men’s Premier League, and both teams striving to qualify for the Champions Trophy, the squads’ most recent matchup had the makings of a humdinger. But UCD prevented a back-and-forth competition from developing, as the home team decisively bested Belfast this past Saturday, 82-71.

From the outset, control of the game appeared to be within UCD’s grasp. Neil Baynes, the squad’s versatile big man, made his presence known almost immediately. Over the contest’s first four minutes, the 6-foot-6 center scored from inside, notched two free throws, and nailed a mid-range jumper. Baynes’ strong first-quarter play was complemented by that of his teammate, fellow center Preston Ross. An interior threat, Ross repeatedly barrelled through the lane, often scoring and consistently drawing away defenders. Together, Baynes and Ross led UCD to an early and commanding lead over Belfast. By the conclusion of the first quarter, the score was 28-15.

Though the deficit had reached double-digits by the first quarter’s end, Belfast determinedly attempted to mount a comeback effort in the second. Ricky Taylor, the team’s most prolific scorer, spearheaded the drive. Recovering from a first-quarter cold spell, Belfast’s standout small forward was quick to put his shooting skills on exhibit. With approximately six minutes remaining in the second quarter, he was leading his squad with 12 points – the last two coming off of a highly contested shot. But Taylor’s offensive prowess alone couldn’t carry Belfast past UCD, especially with Baynes and Ross still playing solidly. Beleaguered with early fouls, with the team having collected seven in the first quarter, Belfast were unable to offer the bruising duo stiff resistance – and were also incapable of establishing an inside game. The result was that the second quarter ended much as the first, with UCD ahead of the visiting team by a score of 48-37.

The third quarter’s narrative remained similar to that of the first half, as the Belfast squad continued its fight to remain in contention with UCD. Through the quarter, the team’s speedy guard Conor Quinn generated some points off the fast break, and scrappy Belfast guard Paddy McGaharan served as a threat in and around the paint. By the game’s end, the two players had combined for 26 points (with a 57.1 field goal percentage). However, much like Taylor in the second quarter, the two guards couldn’t push their squad past UCD in the third. Ross continued to score and snatch rebounds inside, and UCD shooting guard Dan James emerged as a long-range threat – making a clutch 3-point shot and constantly hovering about the arc. Registering offensive successes inside and along the perimeter, the UCD players maintained a double-digit lead going into the contest’s final 10 minutes, 59-49.

But Belfast would stage one last hurrah during the game’s fourth quarter, led once again by the smooth-shooting Taylor. The forward challenged UCD’s defenders – driving the lane, drawing fouls, and making mid-range shots. By the end of the contest, and particularly due to his play in the fourth quarter, he had scored 26 points and shot 43.5 percent from the field. However, despite Taylor’s skilful shooting, the UCD squad quashed Belfast’s last comeback attempt. Matching the Belfast forward’s scores in the fourth’s opening minutes – with a mid-range shot and layup – and playing formidable defence throughout the entire quarter, Baynes prevented his team from being routed. Additional support was provided by UCD power forward Renatas Nedzveckas, who scored seven points coming off the bench, and by James, whose work along and outside the arc stymied Belfast’s rally. The UCD shooting guard would finish the game with 15 points and a 66.7 3-point percentage. Largely as a result of these players’ efforts, UCD seized victory over the visiting squad.

With the end of the season quickly approaching and with qualification for the Champions Trophy hanging in the balance, this matchup’s storyline proved incredibly positive for the UCD squad, which now stands three points behind fourth-place Templeogue. The team was consistently strong throughout the contest, and the squad’s two big men delivered impactful performances – performances necessary for future wins. Baynes, who scored 14 points against Templeogue on January 17th, extended his hot streak by notching 16 points against Belfast on 77.8 percent shooting. And Ross, whose dunks and drives left his defenders overwhelmed, notched 25 points on 68.8 percent shooting. He additionally gathered eight rebounds, four of which were offensive. Also of note were the less apparent contributions coming from UCD’s backcourt. Though his shooting percentage (18.2) was low in Saturday’s game, team captain Conor Meany facilitated an effective offense – one that generated Baynes’ and Ross’ points. On the day, Meany collected seven assists and nine total rebounds. So, in sum, with five games remaining in the season, and with the team having played exceptionally well, there still remains great hope for UCD’s Champions Trophy bid.

Meanwhile, for loss-plagued Belfast, the future seems much less bright. The third consecutive defeat for the program, Saturday’s game – with the team having relied on spurts and having suffered through stretches of inconsistency – seemed an ominous signal of the end of the Northern Irish squad’s playoff hopes. Gravely disappointed by this recent loss, Belfast head coach Neal McCotter noted that his team would need a “miracle” to gain a top-four position and a Champions Trophy slot.