By Jeff TaylorWhen the 2008-09 EuroLeague Women tipped off, no one could have predicted that Halcon Avenida would reach the Final.
But that's where the Salamanca team finds itself.
On Sunday, Jose Hernandez's team will face its most difficult test in a game with two-time defending champions Spartak Moscow Region.
|LeCoe Willingham believes that anything can happen in the Final|
On Friday, Spartak won their all-Russian showdown with UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Semi-Finals for a second straight year while Avenida, cheered on by its raucous home crowd at the Sanchez Paraiso, advanced after defeating MKB Euroleasing Sopron.
On paper, Spartak coach Laszlo Ratgeber has a Dream Team.
Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson, Sylvia Fowles and Tatiana Shchegoleva are a fabulous five that UMMC and their embarrassment of riches didn't stop.
Everything about Halcon Avenida is also a dream.
Hernandez's outfit finished second to Bourges in Group A and then in the play-offs surprised CSKA Moscow in the Eighth-Finals and MiZo Pecs in the Quarter-Finals.
Avenida led by as many as 15 points against Sopron on the opening night of the Final Four before settling for an 85-78 triumph.
The common factor in all of their triumphs has been a euphoric home crowd.
The Avenida players couldn't get enough of the cheer "WE'RE HERE TO SEE AVENIDA BEAT SOPRON" on Friday.
"It's been awesome," Avenida's Le'Coe Willingham said immediately after scoring a team-high 20 points against Sopron.
"It's a great city and we have the best fans ever. This has been an awesome experience for me. Everyone kind of speculated what we could do at the beginning but no one really believed.
"But we've worked hard in practice every day, the players and the coaches. We're just overjoyed right now because all of the hard work is paying off."
Avenida does have quality with frontline players Le'Coe Willingham, Donnette Snow and Petra Stampalija.
There are EuroLeague Women All-Star Anke De Mondt, Silvia Dominguez, Isa Sanchez, Gunta Basko and Maria Rovira as well.
If Avenida had to work extremely hard against an impressive young Sopron team, though, they will need an extraordinary effort against Spartak, a team that has a mental toughness that is second to none.
Australian superstar Jackson hasn't felt 100% for a month and even became sick before half-time of the game against UMMC, yet she refused to give in and played in the second half.
With UMMC threatening to claw back a nine-point deficit, Spartak's defense - led by Bird - shut them down.
"That's an all-star team," Willingham said.
"We're just honoured to be here. We are just going to give the best that we can in front of these fans.
"It's been a long season."
Avenida, Willingham says, have a chance to upset Spartak.
"We have beaten some giants this season: Bourges, CSKA, Pecs," she said.
"The best thing about this team is that we never give up.
"We're going to go into that game with high spirits and play our hearts out."
There is one certainty.
Sunday will be a great advertisement for basketball.
"These fans are just so energetic," Willingham said.
"They're fanatics. They're so into the game.
"They're with you whether you lose, or win."
UMMC Ekaterinburg will also face Sopron in the battle for third place on Sunday.