The Hungarian city of Pécs is warming up this week to welcome 3 visiting clubs and their supporters and offer some backing of its own to locals MiZo Pécsi VSK in the grand finale of the women’s club basketball season; the Pécs EuroLeague Women Final Four 2004.
JME Gambrinus Brno, Lotos VBW Clima Gdynia and US Valenciennes Olympic will all travel to the basketball hotbed tucked into the southern Hungarian hills for the climax of this year’s competition and the contest for the European title.
This season’s EuroLeague has proven to be one of the most competitive yet with qualification to the Quarter-Final play-offs from both groups turning out, to be tougher and tighter than ever before. Group B showed itself to be the stronger of the two, however, as all four teams competing in Pécs already faced each other during the regular season in the group games.
MiZo-Pecsi VSK v US Valenciennes Olympic
The action starts on Friday with local club MiZo-Pecsi VSK matching up against last year’s runners-up and current French champions US Valenciennes Olympic.
Valenciennes face fierce opposition, not only from the 10 Pécs players, but also the 5500 noisy home fans who are expected to pack the Lauber Deszõ sports hall to the rafters. Having lost here during the regular season, Laurent Buffard’s team will have to be very mentally tough to pull off the necessary win to go through to the Final.
Currently top of the table in the French Ligue Féminine at the end of the regular season, former EuroLeague Champions USVO look set to take another domestic title. Belgian star Ann Wauters has handed her club yet another terrific season and is already widely tipped to win MVP honours in the French Ligue. In the EuroLeague she has averaged 16 points and 9 rebounds, scoring 20+ points twice - both times against Pécs...
Wauters' main back-up has come from Aussie international Suzy Batkovic inside, on the perimeter from Allison Feaster, Audrey Sauret and Sandra Le Drean, with Edwige Lawson leading at the point: possibly the most intimidating 6-man rotation in Europe. Lawson has had a very quiet season, but coach Buffard will be relying on her to rise to the occasion and lead to the charge for a renewed European title.
Valenciennes finished top of Group B after the EuroLeague qualifying round and saw off other Hungarian hopefuls Euroleasing Orsi Sopron in the best-of-3 play-off series. The French side was one of only two clubs to remain unbeaten at home during the entire EuroLeague season. The other was Pécs.
MiZo-Pecsi VSK will have a big home-court advantage this weekend - tickets were already sold out two weeks ago and there will be standing room only for the hoardes of loyal fans. This is only the second appearance at a Final Four by the Hungarian club (Pécs took 3rd place in 2001) but hopes and expectations are running high. Laszlo Ratgeber and his team are under incredible pressure to perform and at least make it through to Sunday's Final.
|Pécs' Dalma Ivanyi|
Pécs too are top of the Hungarian domestic league table and are looking strong through the play-offs. A recent 18-point win over second-placed (and FIBA Europe Cup finalists) Szolnoki MÁV-Coop gave a clear indication of their domestic title aspirations.
Hungarian national team regular Dalma Ivanyi has had a great season so far for the home club, scoring almost 13 points per game, while averaging 5.6 assists and grabbing 3 steals (a EuroLeague high). Inside the paint Albena Branzova has proven a key player for Pécs - she coolly hit 3-for-3 free-throws at the end of regular time in the second game of the Play-Offs against Bourges to take the game into overtime and to eventual victory and Final Four qualification. Both players also took EuroLeague Player of the Week honours during the regular season.
Gambrinus JME Brno v Lotos VBW Clima Gdynia
Gambrinus Brno and Lotos Gdynia face each other in the second semi-final with a 1-1 record from the regular season, both having won on the other's home court. Now in a neutral venue the game is wide open.
For Gdynia this is their second trip to the Final Four, having taken 2nd place behind US Valenciennes Olympic in Liévin in 2002. They went out in the Play-Offs last year to eventual Champions UMMC Ekaterinburg and have been hoping to redeem themselves all season. Finishing second in Group B, again behind USVO, the Polish side made sure of qualification in the Play-Offs beating French club Pays d'Aix Basket 13 in the 3-game series.
Perennial Polish champions, Gdynia have won 6 consecutive national titles and set a new record last season with 72 straight victories. Heading into the third round of the Polish League Play-Offs Gdynia are still dominating...
The team nevertheless has a very different line-up to that which took second place in 2002. Margo Dydek is still dominating inside the key, however, in the back court there have been many changes coming from both local and foreign talent.
Americans Chasity Melvin and Elaine Powell have both proven their salt this season (averaging 14.5 ppg, 7 rpg and 12.9 ppg and 4.4 apg respectively) however it has been young Agnieszka Bibrzycka that has stood out in particular. Voted Player of the Year in January by Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport, the 21 year-old Bibrzycka has led Gdynia in scoring in the EuroLeague averaging almost 16 points per game.
Gambrinus Brno come to Pécs this week as Final Four veterans - this will be their 4th appearance in 5 years. However, the Czech club has never yet made the Final and coach Jan Bobrovsky will want to change this this year and continue on the success of the national team last summer, to which many of his club players made a large contribution.
|Brno's Hana Machova in action|
In the Czech national league Gambrinus Brno once again finished top of the regular season table and have already advanced to the Finals of the Play-Offs. After this weekend's European action they will face BK VCE Loko Trutnov, whom they have beaten already twice this season, for the national crown.
With captain Romana Hamzova, the only player over 30 years of age, Brno's young team have had their ups and downs this season, losing at home to 8th-placed Lavezzini Parma, but winning on the road in Gdynia. Expectations are still high due to the solid roster which includes young Czech stars such as Hana Machova (European Championship 2003 All-Star 5), Jana Vesela and Ivana Vecerova.
Machova has led Brno in scoring this year, averaging 12 points a game, while the 20-year old Vesela has been a force on the boards. Coach Bobrovsky has such a strong bench though that he can substitute his players in and out without worry.
Whatever the outcome, the 4 teams promise to provide a fascinating weekend of basketball and all of the action can be followed live on fibaeurope.com.