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March Madness - Irish Connections

Every year March Madness takes over the basketball world as buzzer-beaters, Cinderella stories and more deliver incredible storylines annually. Ireland’s connection to the tournament has been relatively limited over the years although we aren’t without our own links to the biggest show in March. Below is a sample of some of Ireland’s links to March Madness.

John O’Donnell – North Carolina

When Cork born John O’Donnell played under Dean Smith at North Carolina, freshmen were not allowed to play Varsity level. Despite being part of the team John never got to take to the floor in the 1971-72 season that saw the Tar Heels make the Final Four. The story of the 1971-72 season was the potential showdown between North Carolina who were ranked second nationally all year and UCLA who were in the midst of what would become an 88-game winning streak between 1971 and 1974. The matchup was being built up all year as UCLA’s star Bill Walton vs North Carolina’s big man Bob McAdoo. McAdoo a future NBA and Euroleague Champion was the NBA MVP in 1975 and was set to provide a major matchup problem for Walton. North Carolina though got caught with one eye on the Championship game and would lose to Florida State in the semi-final robbing college basketball of the final it wanted as UCLA won its sixth straight title as part of a run that would see John Wooden coach them to ten titles in twelve years. You can read more about John’s fascinating career here.

Marty Conlon - Providence

For any basketball person the world over, the name Rick Pitino is a famous one. Pitino’s coaching career has seen him two NCAA Championships, coach in the NBA for the Boston Celtics and take control of the famous Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos amongst others. In 1985, Pitino was serving as an assistant to Hubie Brown in the New York Knicks when the call came to take over the head coaching job at Providence College. Providence at the time were struggling and needed someone to turn the programme around. The school had a top young talent in Billy Donovan, but more strength was needed. Pitino took to the recruiting trail and in Conlon found the big man he was looking for. At 6’10, the big man had already made a name for himself at Archbishop Stepinac and as he arrived in Providence, he was ready to help. As a freshman, he averaged 4.4 points a game to go with 2.9 rebounds. On the face of it nothing special, but behind the numbers were the overall transformation of Providence under Pitino. Despite losing in the Big East tournament to Georgetown, the Friars' 21-8 record was good enough to secure them a sixth seed in the NCAA tournament. Wins over UAB and Austin Peay over the first weekend saw the Friars head to the Sweet 16 weekend. An upset of the South-East regions Alabama in the Sweet 16 set up a rematch with Georgetown in the Elite 8 and they were able to reverse their Big East result by beating Georgetown 88-73 to bring Providence to the Final Four. At the Final Four, Conlon played 10 minutes In front of 64,959 people in the Louisiana Superdome, scoring two points and matching up with future NBA players Rony Seikaly and Derrick Coleman of Syracuse. Unfortunately for Providence their star guard Billy Donovan was held to just eight points and their Cinderella run was over. It was also the last meaningful postseason run of Marty’s college career despite excellent production for the rest of his career.

Mike Mitchell - Colorado State

After transferring from Fresno State to Colorado State for his senior year, Mike Mitchell helped his team exceed pre-season expectations and secure a share of the WAC Championship and an NCAA tournament bid. Mitchell also was awarded the WAC Player of the Year, an honour that Tim Hardaway had won the previous year!

In the tournament, they were drawn against Alabama who featured a 6’10 shooting big man by the name of Robert Horry. Big shot Bob as he would later be called in the NBA went on to play 16 seasons and win seven NBA championships alongside Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan to name a few. In 1990 he was a sophomore for Alabama but he was already making a name for himself that would see him drafted 11th overall just two years later. In the tournament battle between the two Horry hit six threes on his way to a game-high 27 points in an Alabama win. Mitchell in his lone tournament performance accounted himself well as he 24 points, eight rebounds and five assists, showing he belonged on the top stage.

Susan Moran - St. Joe's

In Susan Moran’s freshman year at St. Joe’s, she won the A-10 title and was named Rookie of the Year as she led the team in both scoring and rebounding. The title got St Joe’s into the NCAA tournament, where they drew Tulane in the first round. In her first tournament game, Susan put up 21 points and 11 rebounds as St Joe’s won 83–72. The first weekend of the tournament was hosted by a participating team each year. St Joe’s’ win earned them the right to play the host of their mini-tournament, the Duke Blue Devils, in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke eventually won 66–60, ending Moran’s freshman year. That Duke team went on to reach the Championship game that year, upsetting the Tennessee Volunteers on the way to San Jose. Losing by just six points to the eventual runners up showed the level that St Joe’s reached that season.

Despite not winning the A-10 title as a sophomore, Susan got back to the tournament for what turned out to be the last time in her college career. In their first game, Susan and the Hawks faced Texas, and shut down the Longhorn’s offence on their way to a 69–48 win. Susan had 24 points and 13 rebounds and again showed what she was capable of on the national stage. Unfortunately, it was a second-round exit again, as Rutgers had too much for St Joe’s in the second game in New Jersey.

Michael Bree and Conor Grace - Davidson

The NCAA tournament shot both Davidson and Steph Curry to superstardom in 2008. The foundations for that trip were laid during the 2001/02 season when Davidson made it to the NCAA tournament and got to face Ohio State. The appearance is a bittersweet one for the Irish duo of Michael Bree and Conor Grace. Bree was in his senior year after an accomplished career at Davidson but sadly he didn’t get to play in his lone tournament appearance after he picked up an injury in the conference tournament. Conor was in his freshman year and this turned out to be his only tournament appearance too. Conor would play limited minutes as Ohio State comfortably advanced.

Bryan Mullins (Southern Illinois and Loyola Chicago)

When a 98-year-old nun is your team chaplain you’re bound to have a bit of luck on your side. For Loyola of Chicago, it went way beyond luck though as the 11th seed in the 2018 NCAA tournament made it all the way to the Final Four. Sister Jean quickly became the national story in America as her Cinderella team reach the national semi-final, there was a former Irish international sitting on the sideline as an assistant coach for the Ramblers. In the semi-final game in front of 68,257 people in the Alamodome in San Antonio, Loyola played great basketball leading by double digits in the second half before eventually being undone by future NBAer Moe Wagner and the Michigan Wolverines. For Loyola’s Bryan Mullins it was another amazing chapter to a young basketball story that had already included plenty of memorable moments along the way. Aside from his time playing for Ireland, Mullins also had impressive runs in the NCAA tournament for Southern Illinois as both a freshman and a sophomore, which included a Sweet 16 run that was eventually ended at the hands of the Kansas Jayhawks.

Edel Thornton - Quinnipiac

In 2017, Cork-born and raised Edel Thornton (current co-captain of the Ireland Senior Women's team) was part of a magical journey with Quinnipiac as she became the first Irish born player to play in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. The 12th seeded Bobcats hit 15 threes on their way to becoming just the fourth ever 12th seed to make it to the second weekend of March Madness. Edel was a big part of the team providing multiple assists per game and playing some tenacious defense. Their run was eventually ended by South Carolina in the tournament but they would return the following year and win another game in the tournament beating Miami behind an incredible 14 points for Thornton.

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