By David Hein
Russia's goal coming into the 2007 EuroBasket was nothing less than capturing the gold medal and direct qualification for the 2008 Olympics.
The 2005 EuroBasket silver-medallists' penultimate hurdle on the way to that goal are the former Soviet Republic of Latvia, who will be Russia's opponent in Saturday's first semi-final in Chieti.
The mighty Russians, who also took silver at the 2006 World Championship in Brazil, are making their fifth consecutive appearance in Europe's final four, but they only have one tite in 2003 against the Czech Republic to show for their efforts.
Igor Grudin's Russians have been progressively getting better and they masterfully shut down Lithuania on defense in their quarter-final, giving up just six points in the fourth quarter after a slow start.
Latvia meanwhile come into their tussle with Russia knowing they can play relaxed and free of any pressure after already have secured their best-ever EuroBasket Women result.
There is one question mark for Latvia as all-around star Anete Jekabsone-Zogota was hobbled at the beginning of their quarter-final against France, though she played 35 minutes – albeit struggling to a 4-of-14 shooting performance.
|With Jekabsone-Zogota hurting Zane Tamane stepped up for Latvia.|
The significance for Latvia and basketball in the country was not lost on Latvian center Zane Tamane, who said: “It's the first time since our independence that we've been so high in Europe.”
Latvian President Dr. Vaira Vike-Freiberga is expected to be on hand for the game in Chieti.
One more thing to note is that fact that Russia will have the disadvantage of having to play two consecutive days while Latvia were able to rest on Friday.
Last Time Out: Russia out-muscled Lithuania 75-58 on Friday while Latvia beat France 66-62 on Thursday – both Russia and Latvia improving their records to 6-1 in the tournament.
Key Match-Up: Tamane vs Maria Stepanova- With star Jekabsone-Zogota a bit banged up against France, Tamane stepped up for possibly her best game of the tournament with 12 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Tamane will be the main player in charge of trying to slow down the Russian starlet, who suffered through a mediocre showing against Lithuania with just nine points and nine rebounds as well as 4-of-10 from the field and 1-of-5 from the foul stripe.
X-Factor: Gunta Basko- The Latvia point guard has played superb defense, and with Jekabsone-Zogota struggling, she picked up her game as well with 17 points, four rebounds and six assists. Basko will have to frustrate Russian playmaker Oxana Rakhmatulina and help deny the entry passes into the low post where Stepanova and Irina Osipova are so effective.
Key Stats: Russia have out-rebounded every opponent thus far other than France in the preliminary round where they were even at 38 each. Overall, the Russians have averaged 14 rebounds more per game. Latvia, on the other hand, have been on the short end of the battle for the glass four times in seven games – including their last two against Germany and France – and have secured five fewer rebounds than their opponents total. Ainars Zvirgzdins's team cannot allow that to happen on Saturday.
Sounding Off: Stepanova- “Our aim is to be first in this tournament and if we continue to play as we have done, we can achieve it. It's going to be an interesting game against Latvia. They play very good defense and play like a team. I think it's a good team."