By Jeff Taylor
Maria Stepanova and defending champions Russia beat Spain in a big game once again on Friday to claim a spot in the final of the EuroBasket Women.
In a rematch of the title game two years ago in Italy, the Russians rolled to a 77-61 victory with Stepanova, the 2008 FIBA Europe Women's Player of the Year, scoring 19 points and grabbing 16 rebounds.
Russia will now face France - the only team to beat them so far in this tournament - in a battle for the
gold medal on Saturday.
|Hammon was critical for Russia down the stretch.|
"Spain have a very, very good team," Russia coach Valeriy Tikhonenko said.
"We prepared for them. We knew that Spain had not lost for a long time. We wanted to not let them do it tonight. The game was a little bit nervous but under our control."
Point guard Becky Hammon poured in 18 of her game-high 28 points in the fourth quarter when the Russians outscored Spain 29-19 and blew the game wide open.
She had eight points in a 10-0 run at the start of the frame as Russia stretched a 48-42 advantage to 58-42 with 8:17 to go.
Spain pulled to within 10 points midway through the quarter but got no closer.
Russia didn't have Hammon for the first five games of the competition while she was on WNBA duty with the San Antonio Silver Stars.
Though they lost to France in her first game with the team, she has been solid in wins over Latvia and now Spain.
"Becky played an excellent game and I hope she will do tomorrow," Tikhonenko said.
For those expecting a thriller to develop as the title game did in 2007 when Russia prevailed 74-68, it didn't happen.
Russia enjoyed a considerable rebounding advantage, 50-37, and never looked troubled by the pressure defense that Spain has thrived on at this EuroBasket Women.
Spain had their chances, especially early in the second half when players drove into the lane for lay-ups but missed.
The Russian towers of Stepanova and Irina Osipova had something to do with that.
Each swatted two shots, with Olga Arteshina also coming off the bench and blocking two.
Stepanova knows the Spanish players well and is friends with some, including her former teammate at CSKA Moscow, Amaya Valdemoro.
"Spain has a great team with great players," Stepanova said. "I just think it's up here (points to head), it's mental when they play us."
Elisa Aguilar and Anna Montanana had carried much of the offensive load for Spain in this tournament but they weren't able to establish themselves.
They combined for 12 points on six of 24 shooting from the floor.
Spain attempted just eight free throws, making five, while Russia ended up 16 of 29 at the charity stripe on the night.
"We lost the game but I am happy with the overall performance," Spain coach Evaristo Perez said.
"We played a good game but there were two factors that de-stabilized us.
"We were not good in rebounds and they were overpowering, and we struggled to make open shots behind the arc."
Spain finished four of 17 from long range, although their 19-year-old sensation Alba Torrens drilled three of five from the arc and finished with a team-high 17 points.
Russia looked like a team in chaos after their last Qualifying Round game - the 72-66 defeat to France when Hammon made her EuroBasket Women bow.
They regrouped and survived in overtime against Latvia on Thursday night.
Spain had wanted to make their move in the first half with the Russians out of sync on offense and shooting just four of 11 at the free-throw line.
Though going on a 7-0 run for a 24-19 lead, Perez's team wasn't able to press home the advantage and went to half-time trailing 26-24.
"We played well in the first two quarters but after that, Russia played very comfortable," Spain guard Laia Palau said.
"When you allow them to play comfortable, this is what happens. It's difficult to stop them. They are so big. Hammon played very well today.
"We lost our team identity and we lost our defensive intensity. We were anxious on offense. We are very sad because we thought we could win one time in our life against Russia."
Russia have enjoyed hegemony over Spain since the 2006 FIBA World Championship for Women in Brazil.
They have now beaten them in their last five big meetings.
With Spain unable to establish the quick tempo they prefer, Tikhonenko's side wore them down with a good passing game that led to many looks inside for Stepanova and her teammates.
Russia will go for their third gold medal in the last four EuroBaskets when they play France on Saturday while Spain will be in the bronze-medal game against Belarus.