Ireland's Senior Women suffered a heartbreaking 70-67 loss to Montenegro in their European qualifier in front of a full house at the National Basketball Arena on Saturday.
Mark Scannall's charges were more than a match for their Division B opponents and lead for the majority of the contest. However, a late surge from the visitor's ensured a cruel defeat for the ‘girls in green'.
Montenegro opened the scoring through Ana Baletic but it was Ireland who commanded the early stages.
Two free throws and a lay-up from Ann Marie Healy provided the perfect response for the home side before an excellent three pointer from Lindsay Peat resulted in a 10-5 lead four minutes into the first quarter.
Ireland's early form was highlighted by the quick thinking Michelle Aspell, who stole the ball at half court before finishing coolly with a lay-up as Ireland lead 18-7 with three minutes left on the clock.
The visitor's responded with Jelena Dublijevic hitting a shot from the side despite being fouled and finished the 3 point play with the ensuing free throw. Dublijevic reduced the deficit to just six points when she converted another two points but Kate Maher replied for Ireland with a shot from the top of the key as Ireland lead 22-16 at the break.
Ireland continued in a similar vein at the start of the second quarter with Susan Moran and Michelle Aspell hitting baskets in quick succession to extend Ireland's lead to 10 points.
That lead was stretched to 13 points when Moran converted another lay-up but Montenegro refused to lie down and were to enjoy a hugely productive spell. Dublijevic, Iva Perovanovic and Baletic all converted lay-up's to put a dent in Ireland's lead. However, Ireland steadied the ship in the closing stages with lay-ups from Moran and Healy maintaining a healthy advantage at the end of the half (35-28).
Michelle Fahy stole the ball after the re-start and found Niamh Dwyer, who hit a three to continue their rich vein of form.
Moran collected her own rebound a minute and half in, extending the lead to 12 but Hajdana Radunovic beat the shot clock in the next passage of play, cutting the lead back to ten.
After an exchange of scores, Moran hit two technical foul shots before Dwyer hit her second three of the night, giving Ireland their largest lead of the day with 16 points.
Montenegro had slimmed the lead to 12 but Dwyer answered in typical fashion with another three, making the score 52-37 in Ireland's favour. Montenegro finished the half on a 6-0 run before Aspell hit one of two free throws to end the half with the Irish leading 55-47.
The signs were ominous in the early stages of the final quarter when Jelena Skerovic struck a three before Bjelica hit a further two to remain in close pursuit of Ireland.
A three pointer from Dywer gave Ireland some breathing space but their hopes were to take a severe blow when the hugely influential Moran committed her fifth foul and she was forced to leave the action with a mammoth 6:45 still remaining on the clock.
Dubljevic and Baletic continued to cause problems for Ireland with consecutive lay-up's and Ireland's lead was reduced to just three points. The comeback was complete when Perovanovic converted another lay-up as the game entered a tense final stage.
Dubljevic then upped her personal tally to 17 points with a shot from the top of the key and giving Montenegro their first lead of the game since the opening tip-off.
Free throws from Dubljevic and Perovanovic helped Montenegro extend their advantage and despite a desperate attempt from Peat in the closing stages they held out for a priceless win.
Irish Senior Women's Head Coach, Mark Scannall:
"The players are hurting because we were ahead for so long but losing Susan Moran to a fifth foul was a serious blow to us," said Scannall. "We lost Susan at an awful time and unfortunately the game swung in their favour.
"We cannot allow ourselves to be downbeat because we were more than a match for them and at times made them look ordinary," he added. "We are still in contention and we are more than capable of winning our remaining four games and getting one of those top two places."
Irish co-captain Lindsay Peat:
"It is far from over
"It's really difficult to take now but we have to take heart from what was an excellent display against a side that is rated so highly.
"We had our chances to win but unfortunately we didn't take it,
"We couldn't ask anymore from the players but on the evidence of this game we are far from out of it. "We have shown we can compete with the likes of Montenegro and the Netherlands and we really believe we can still win our remaining four games and earn a place in the play-off's."