By Paul Nilsen
ZVVZ USK Prague v Halcon Avenida Salamanca
Finally, the new EuroLeague Women season is here and we have picked out a superb opening clash for you from Group C as our featured Game Of The Week. It's certainly been a busy summer for ZVVZ USK Prague who have bolstered their roster in impressive fashion and consequently expectations are high on the eve of the big tip-off.
Having retained the services of their top performers from last season, they have drafted in veteran All Star and former ELW champion Delisha Milton-Jones and pulled off real coup by luring Eve Viteckova and Petra Kulichova from arch rivals Frisco Sika Brno. There is a real buzz around the club and certainly Prague look like one of the teams who have seriously upgraded during the off-season and have the impetus to make some serious noise.
|We meet again: former teammates DeLisha Milton-Jones and Anna Montañana were a great front court duo for Ros Casares and now face each other again as opponents|
Halcon Avenida meanwhile look to be as strong as ever and they too have arguably upgraded since the 2010 campaign by luring players from their arch rivals also. Erika De Souza, Belinda Snell and Anna Montanana who all arrived from Valencia while the club has managed to keep last season's stand-out Sancho Lyttle which is a sensational re-signing.
Overall it promises to be an absolute cracker with both teams having genuine ambitions of not only doing well in Group C but also progressing in the knockout phase.
The Form - With no EuroLeague Women games having played, domestic form is all we have to measure right now and not surprisingly, USK Prague have dominated in their first couple of domestic league games winning them both by more than 50 points. Halcon Avenida meanwhile have not only won all five games in their domestic league but also have one piece of silverware safely tucked away in the trophy cabinet having won the Spanish SuperCopa.
Perimeter & Penetration - It looks to me like the home team have a very slight edge in the backcourt and on the perimeter and on that basis, I think it is essential Halcon Avenida play well defensively to lock down some potentially devastating shooting by Viteckova and Elhotova. Similarly Maltsi and Whalen pose big threats so expect Dominguez and De Mondt to be pretty busy in this game trying to disrupt the rhythm and ball movement of the USK Prague offence with pressure at the top. While I am no coach, I think I would be less concerned the hosts threw the ball inside rather than had space to hit jump shots or get into their shooting motion via penetration.
In The Paint - This is where the key battleground surely is in this game. The paint is dripping with experience, genuine All Star quality and is saturated with talent and production. Both teams have real strength in those areas but I feel this time it is the visiting team who an take advantage. Erika De Souza is in great form and looking as powerful as ever while Sancho Lyttle is an ever present danger. With Montanana offering additional experience, you sense Milton-Jones and Kulichova will do well to match their opponents on the boards and around the hoop. I expect Salamanca might bang the ball inside quite a bit. Equally I feel Halcon Avanida could be a tough nut to crack inside for the Prague forwards on offence.
The Hot Hands - USK Prague will be looking to new signing Eve Viteckova to continue her hot streak from the FIBA World Championship Women and the first couple of weeks of the domestic season. She has really shot the ball superbly well and thee has been a barrage of buckets from downtown - long may that continue hail Prague supporters. While for Halcon Avenida, Erika De Souza has enjoyed a great start to the season with her new club and after five games is averaging a near double-double with Sancho Lyttle hot on her heels for the status of being the kingpin.
The ‘X Factors' - I mentioned it in my Paulball Previews but I want to underline it again - I am intrigued to see how USK Prague are defensively in comparison to last season when they were poor. The addition of Milton-Jones and Kulichova inside should assist with the powerful front-court of the visitors but can the team play the kind of defence to hold Salamanca to a low enough tally to prevail? Oh and who is going to compete with the athleticism of Sancho Lyttle around the rim? Perhaps the biggest ‘X Factor' of all however will be Belinda Snell who has the versatility to defend a couple of positions and is the perfect kind of ‘glue' player in a game like this to do a little bit of everything.
|Katerina Elhotova has been a constant threat from outside last season but needs to step up on defence to meet lofty expectations|
Rising Star Watch - With an energetic and action-packed game combined with some silky skills, Alba Torrens is one of the most exciting young players in Europe and watching her is always a treat. She has also had a great start to the season in Liga Femenina. For the home team, Katerina Elhotova is a little more than a rising star having already made a name for herself in the past couple of seasons but it will be interesting to see if that continues and how she will be used alongside Viteckova. Another couple of players worth keeping an eye on despite probably only being given handful of minutes are USK Prague guard Katerina Bartonova and Halcon Avenida guard Marta Xargay. Their respective roles in this game and during the season are worthy of keeping a roving eye on.
Did You Know? - The first home game for Prague last season was also against Spanish opposition in the form of a clash with Rivas Ecopolis. For the record, they lost 83-76.
Fighting For Fitness - Both teams should be at relatively full strength for this ELW opener!
What They Say - Halcon Avenida guard Anke De Mondt "'It's a tough start for us on the road first of all and against a great team. All players they have possess a lot of experience at the highest level, both in club and national team competitions. Therefore we have to be at our best and really concentrated to try and take the win back home! Every game in this group is going to be a big fight, so let's see what it's going to bring for us on this first EuroLeague Women game day!'
Prediction - A nightmare to predict the outcome of this one, my heart says USK Prague will progress well in this competition and led by Eve Viteckova they will grab a tight home win to start off. However my head is telling me never to bet against a quality team like Salamanca. It's a tough one to call, especially first up but on balance, I am going for the strength of the visitors inside to prevail and for them to possibly shade it.