MERRY MONK returned empty-handed from their trip to Munster last weekend with two defeats in the Superleague South Conference leaving them in fourth place on the league table by virtue of scoring difference.
On Saturday night Ballina crashed to a 24 point defeat against Neptune in Cork (113-89) while on Sunday they were pipped 86-83 by the Limerick Lions.
The defeats capped a miserable week for the club after their cup defeat to Tralee and the departure of the enigmatic American, Jermaine Turner. He had averaged almost 24 points per game in four outings with Merry Monk but left in the wake of the cup exit.
His absence left Ballina short much of their rebounding and inside presence on Saturday, and Neptune are not the opponents any undersized team wants to come up against. Centre Matt Gorman took full advantage of his size and strength in the first quarter, powering his way to 12 first quarter points.
Neptune’s size advantage on the boards also told, as solid defensive rebounding led to some easy fast break scores. Ronan McGarrity was the only player who appeared to be able to do much damage against Neptune’s long arms and ability to protect the rim. He managed six in the first period, but his side still trailed 32 - 15 at the end of the first quarter.
Neptune kept up the offensive barrage in the second quarter. Gorman continued to punish the visitors inside, and buried a three for good measure, on his way to 23 first half points.
Ballina’s American guard Puff Summers, who caused all sorts of problems for Neptune on his first visit to the Stadium, began to do some damage in the lane. He managed nine in the quarter, five of them from the free throw line, but Neptune’s swarming defence was suffocating Ballina, and the offense broke down again and again.
Mike De Corso found his scoring touch, getting one of Neptune’s four three pointers in the second quarter. Neptune moved the ball quickly on offense, and it was just a matter of waiting until someone was wide open. By the time the buzzer sounded for half time, Neptune were 60-38 to the good. The only black spot on the new coaches opening half was the loss of sharpshooter Ian McLoughlin, who departed with a possible broken nose.
Ballina made a slightly better start to the second half, helped by the fact that Neptune came out stone cold from the break. If Ballina had more scoring power, they certainly could have dragged themselves back into this, as the home side seemed to be unable to get the ball to fall through the hoop. Even decent looks inside clanged off the rim.
However, Ballina were struggling too. They did manage to peg the lead back slightly, getting back to 76 - 59 by the end of the period, although there was little pretty basketball from either side.
Neptune continued to struggle to score at the start of the final quarter. Their physical advantage, especially their ability to compete on the offensive glass, prevented Ballina from getting any fast break scores that would have been essential to cut into the lead. Kieran O’Brien, in particular, was a nuisance all game. He finished with 8 offensive rebounds, which lead directly to many of his season high 23 points.
Ballina finally showed some life, with Pete Strobl hitting two threes in 20 seconds, but Neptune found their shooting touch at exactly the right time. As the clock ticked down to just under three and a half minutes Ballina got it back to 11, but in quick succession Gordon Fitzgerald hit a three, Keiran O’Brien had a lay-up and jumper, and Mike De Corso hit a long jumper and a three pointer.
Ballina managed just a single bucket in the middle of the run, and the game was over.
Puff Summers managed a creditable 27 for the visitors, Pete Strobl had 20 and Paul Freeman chipped in with 15.
Meanwhile on Sunday, the Limerick Lions outscored Ballina in the fourth quarter to record their first win in six games at UL. The game was close to mid third quarter when Ballina pulled away to lead by 10 going into the final quarter. It was do or die for Limerick and they came out and hit 24 points to get out by three.
Ballina had solid peformances from Summers (21), Strobl (13), Ronan McGarrity (21) and Freeman. They must beat Mustang St Paul’s next Saturday night in Ballina at 8pm if they are to remain in contention.