UWM team’s Northern Ireland road trip includes more than basketball

Basketball players sit on stage with their backs to the camera while elementary students sit on the floor and ask questions.

UWM men’s basketball team is in the midst of a road trip like no other — not Green Bay or Detroit but, rather, Northern Ireland.

The Panthers are one of eight teams in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame 2018 Belfast Classic at the SSE Arena Belfast. The winner gets a crystal jug made by local hands, and players will perform in front of fans who are just getting used to NCAA basketball and eager to see more.

A group of players look at a wall painted with graffiti.
UWM players look at one of Belfast’s “peace walls.” Almost 100 peace walls were constructed over 30 years during “the troubles” to limit violence between warring Republican and Royalist neighbors.

UWM faces the University at Buffalo, which played in the 2018 NCAA Tournament and upset Arizona in the first round, on Friday at 4:30 a.m. Central time. Tournament results will dictate whether UWM plays San Francisco or Stephen F. Austin on Saturday at 7 a.m. or 9:30 a.m. Central time. You can read blog updates about the trip and follow along on Twitter, and you get more information about all UWM sports at mkepanthers.com.

Baldwin immediately liked the idea when it was presented by Amanda Braun, UWM’s athletic director. His wife has Irish heritage, and he played in Europe during college summers and as a pro. He knows the benefits that await his young team, and not just from playing the games.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to really get to know each other in a different environment, away from campus and away from the States,” Baldwin said. “There’s the potential for great friendships and camaraderie born out of a trip like this.”

Four people sit around a table.
UWM’s team had lunch at Madigan’s, a pub in Belfast, not long after arriving. From left are Nick Lucenti, director of basketball operations, and players Jake Wright, Wil Sessoms and Deandre Abram.

Baldwin stresses that his student-athletes deserve world-class experiences. Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, is known for its proximity to a beautiful coastline and rolling fields of green. Once a war zone during “the troubles,” it’s redefined itself as a go-to tourist destination.

In addition to competing and being part-time tourists, Panthers players are meeting kids from throughout the region to talk hoops, goals and life. Before the trip, Baldwin brought in a guest speaker to teach his players more about Ireland, including the culture, politics, traditions and other facets that make it unique.

“For many of our student-athletes, it marks their first time in Europe,” Baldwin says. “I wanted to help them make the most of their chance to immerse themselves in the Irish culture.”

Other tournament teams include Albany, Dartmouth, Marist and Long Island University-Brooklyn. During the week before leaving for the games in Ireland, UWM defeated LIU-Brooklyn and Albany at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.

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