By Paul Nilsen
In stark contrast to last season when the then newcomers Rivas Ecopolis burst onto the EuroLeague Women scene in a blaze of wondrous glory, this season has proved to be something of nightmare for the Spaniards.
Opening up against a stacked Fenerbahce team tasked with delivering a Final Four place was never going to be easy and having been surprisingly ripped apart in spectacular fashion by MKB EuroLeasing in Sopron last week, Coach Fort and his players find their EuroLeague Women headache is possibly about to turn into a migraine with the arrival of tournament favourites UMMC Ekaterinburg.
|Courtney Paris has performed excellent so far for Rivas, but how will she cope with the formidable Ekaterinburg frontcourt?|
Consequently they are staring the very real prospect of an 0-3 start to the new campaign. If they don't manage to shock their Russian visitors and are handed another defeat which is obviously a strong possibility, they can at least find solace and indeed take inspiration from Good Angels Kosice who also lost their first three games and still ended up securing a quarter-final place.
In truth it shouldn't really be like this for Rivas although with the surprise factor and euphoria from last season now resigned to history, reality bites hard. When the likes of Elisa Aguilar and Amaya Valdermoro were shipped in from Ros Casares, the logic was that these two seasoned National Team players with a wealth of experience in EuroLeague Women, including an appearance in the final game of last season would both help secure another successful campaign. However, by the time the game ends against Ekat, they may find themselves faced with something of a mountain to climb and this wasn't in the script.
Not that their predicament can be attributed to Aguilar and Valdemoro, let me make that clear. With the loss of three starters in Jelena Dubljevic, Cathy Joens and Crystal Langhorne, the lack of continuity was always going to make getting off to a good start difficult. I suspect once the team gels, things will be okay in the medium to longer term for the Spanish side, although they have to start playing tenacious defence and urgently.
It probably won't help seeing Crystal Langhorne on their home floor but in an opponent's shirt. Especially since Langhorne isn't even expected to be with Ekat all season as merely covers for Candace Parker and is getting to play only a limited role - certainly not the court time she had in Madrid last year. While the passionate Rivas faithful will afford her a warm welcome, I guess it will be tough seeing their former favourite potentially putting them to the sword.
Rivas brought in the stellar talent of DeWanna Bonner from Brno, one of the main reasons they were knocked out of last year's competition. On the face of it, the numbers show she is averaging a season double-double after the first two games but dig a little deeper and you realise her percentages are way down on last year and currently sub 40%. She is a class act and will get better and that is one big positive while another is the early contribution of EuroLeague Women rookie Courtney Paris who has been the best player to date.
The final boost I can give Rivas Ecopolis fans while they are perhaps feeling a little down, at least in comparison to the highs of this time last year is simply that the club do have a superb base of highly talented young players and in the longer term, surely whatever way this season pans out, the future has to be bright and Aguilar and Valdemoro will be passing on their expertise every day.
In terms of UMMC Ekaterinburg, there is very little to say. They are ram-packed with more talent on paper than any other team in the tournament and have also as much continuity as anybody else which is surely a recipe for success. In every game they play, this classy team are expected to win and on more occasions than not, win handsomely. You always get the feeling with powerhouses like Ekat, the Qualifying Round is always going to be little more than a warm-up - a kind of muscle-flex before the more serious business of the knockout stages arrive.
Not that they take games lightly and of course, this is when fine tuning can take place for Coach Vetra and the players so when it really does matter and their necks are on the line later in the tournament, they can respond. Aside from the arrival of Langhorne, it's pretty much as you were for Ekaterinburg in terms of personnel, including that date in the diary for the New Year when Parker jets in. During their first couple of games it has also been business as usual. Powerful in all areas and without many weaknesses - if they have any at all that is.
It is a daunting prospect for Rivas but they say that a threat can always been turned into an opportunity and if they can pull out a win against their visitors, there would be no better way to light a fire under their season. To do that though, they have to figure out how to make sure the ‘X Factors' I have identified below go in their favour.
The Form - Rivas Ecoplolis are 6-1 and in their traditional third place in Liga Femenina and have lost both EuroLeague Women games to date. UMMC Ekaterinburg meanwhile are unbeaten this season having went 4-0 in the Russian league and with two EuroLeague Women wins to their name against Gospic Croatia and Lotos Gdynia.
Perimeter & Penetration - The backcourt is something of a contentious one for me when it comes to the hosts who have Bermejo-Moreno and Aguilar now sharing the bulk of the work with the ball, an issue explored in the ‘X Factor' section. They will pin their hopes on the versatile DeWanna Bonner and Amaya Valdemoro to mix it up and they will be the main offensive threats for the Spanish club although like most Rivas players, they need to find some form in terms of their efficiency right now. Linnea Liljestrand and Anna Cruz will also contribute for Rivas but they all have a struggle ahead against the Ekat defence. Dumerc and Pondexter look a terrific combination for the visitors. The backcourt seems to constantly evolve with Dumerc now maybe doing even more than usual with the ball and freeing up Pondexter to score more freely and get busy hustling and contributing in other areas. The pair are as dynamic as you can get in ELW. Deanna Nolan also offers a superb option too but for me, Pondexter can't be allowed open shots because on current form it would be goodnight early for Rivas if they don't lock her down.
In The Paint - For the home team it will be interesting to see how Courtney Paris fares as she has showed promise so far in the center spot and this will be a huge test for her against the likes of Sandrine Gruda, Ann Wauters and Crystal Langhorne. To think Stepanova might miss out injured and Candace Parker will be here in the New Year, it is genuinely jaw dropping when you reel off those names, let alone try to stop them on the court! With young Nicholls, Herrera, Gimeo and Abalde all pitching in with the EuroLeague Women rookie Paris, it really is an inexperienced frontcourt for Rivas and this is where they look to be exposed and Ekat are way out in front. For me, coping with the trio of big bodies mentioned will be hard enough for the hosts let alone with the classy Bibrzycka chipping in. In fact, it looks a little one-sided to me, but then games aren't played on paper or on reputations.
The Hot Hands - Both Ann Wauters and Cappie Pondexter are having great starts to the season with the former simply stunning inside with 15 of 16 so far while Pondexter has showcased her full range to date with a double-double in the last game. For Rivas Ecopolis it has of course been a disappointment to date but Courtney Paris has made a nice start to her EuroLeague career despite the shortcomings of the team.
|Crystal Langhorne, the latest addition to the star-studded Ekaterinburg team, has very fond memories of Rivas|
The ‘X Factors' - For me, there is only one rather major ‘X Factor' not just in this game but in the entire season and outlook of Rivas Ecopolis and that is Clara Bermejo Moreno . She was the playmaker who pulled the strings last year and provided the main thrust behind the initial success of the rookies in EuroLeague Women as they made the largest of splashes with their scintillating Qualifying Campaign. I campaigned through my Paulball columns for her inclusion in the All Star game in recognition of her efforts and she deservedly made it. However, her reward for a stellar season has been for Elisa Aguilar to arrive and eat up a percentage of her minutes and whether it is confidence or something else, her performances have suffered. The phrase ‘if it isn't broken don't try to fix it' springs to mind. The other ‘X Factor'? Well, that is surely aggressive defence. Without it, Rivas Ecopolis are dead in the water. They aren't exactly huge nor lightening quick and just have to play above themselves as a team defensively and work their fingers to the bone trying to keep teams to less than 80 points as a bare minimum. They have rebounded poorly, blocked hardly any shots and came up with hardly any steals. That screams out a lack of defensive intensity. It needs resolving and quickly otherwise the season will be over before they know it.
Rising Star Watch - While there is a dearth of young talent in the star studded ranks of UMMC Ekaterinburg, there are plenty of rising stars to follow at Rivas Ecopolis this year, not just during this game. There are four players aged 21 years or younger given decent court-time by Javier Fort and they are Laura Herrera, Vega Gimeno, Laura Nicholls and Tamara Abalde. All are currently looking to establish themselves as serviceable EuroLeague players in forthcoming seasons and in any game whether it be Europe or Liga Femenina, it's terrific being able to track the progress of a quartet of players all successful ay National Team youth levels and looking to carve out good pro-careers and who knows? Perhaps full international honours some time in the near future. In fact with the likes of Valdemoro at the club, it's almost a case of a teacher and pupils scenario and she can have a big hand in helping to shape the future for Spain at senior national team level with how she helps develop the game and mentality of these rising stars during her time in Madrid.
Did You Know? - This is the third successive road trip for UMMC Ekaterinburg who will play all five of their home games consecutively this year starting next week when they host MKB EuroLeasing!
Fighting For Fitness - UMMC center Maria Stepanova could be missing again having sat out the game at Lotos Gdynia last week.
What They Say
Ekaterinburg forward Crystal Langhorne on going back to her old club: "I expect it to be a good game. Rivas will be prepared for our team and with them playing at home, I think they will have the extra motivation. I'm excited to go back to Madrid and see my old team-mates, the staff, and all of the people that I met while I was there. I love that city and it will be nice to visit my old stomping grounds. As a team, we feel like we are in a ok place but that we can play much better. I think as time goes on we will continue to get stronger as a team."
Ekaterinburg star guard Cappie Pondexter: "Well, we know that everyone has us as their target for this season and we are a strong team but with still a lot of improvements to make through out the season. The great thing about our team this year is we are all familiar with each others game and have the same common goal and that's to win a EuroLeague Women title. Rivas Ecopolis are a very good team and have great American players as well. We know it will be a hostile environment on their home court and we just wanna come out and play our style of basketball which is being aggressive on both ends of the floor."
Summer arrival in Madrid Elisa Aguilar: "To beat a team of great players is going to be difficult. It's difficult to single out a player above the others in this team because they have a long and very competitive roster. It is clear that recent results we have had against powerful offensive teams like Fenerbahce and Sopron with now Ekaterinburg that it is all about defence. If you give up a score of 90 points against Ekaterinburg then it is almost impossible to win. We have discussed this many times but now it is time to put it into practice and start being more physical, consistent and controlling the boards."