PaulBall: Three Down, One To Go

01 March 2010

 Paul NilsenPaul Nilsen is a freelance basketball journalist writing for various web-sites and publications across Europe. If you would like to contact Paul you can e-mail him here 

Even by its own high standards, EuroLeague Women really did surpass itself last week for entertainment and thrills.

Reaching truly dizzy heights it added a whole new dimension to that Friday feeling - what a wonderful way to start any weekend!

While the three favourites have now booked their respective places at Final Four without needing a third and decisive game, it was far from plain sailing as the second game quarter-final match-ups all went down an absolute storm with coaches, players and fans alike.

Yes, I thanked EuroLeague Women it was Friday and none more so than Fenerbahce and Spartak Moscow for producing the most thrilling game of the entire season to date and reminding me there truly is an edge to every seat!

The Heart Of The Champions

They often say that for any boxer to be considered a true champion they have to show heart in times of adversity and be able to pick themselves up off the canvass, compose themselves and allow their class to shine through.

For champion boxer, replace with Spartak Moscow. Down by 17 points, they looked to be heading for their first loss of the season. Fenerbahce had them on the ropes and while not completely floored, at the very least, Spartak were down on one knee taking an eight count and gasping for breath. I truly salute Coach Chatman and her players for what happened next as they embarked on that quite extraordinary final quarter salvage operation and with it, showing this is one champion with a heart the size of their Trophy cabinet.

Forget the fact they have quality, just think about and admire their winning mentality. It would have been all too easy for the players to sub-consciously accept defeat and be happy to bring Fenerbahce back to Moscow for a third game. Instead they ensured an overtime thriller that will live long in the memory.

I had identified Sylvia Fowles as the player to watch in my preview and she didn't disappoint claiming the biggest double-double of the season with a stunning 26 points and 19 rebounds. As for Diana Taurasi what is there left to say? I mean seriously come on. I questioned if her mantle was under threat after the arrival on the Euro scene of Candace Parker but after that performance which sent those on twitter into overdrive, she has to be the best on the planet at this moment in time. A massive 38 points and as for  those back to back triples in regulation time - wow! For me, that performance was as breathtaking as it can get for a player in a game with no silverware on the line.

As I congratulate Coach Chatman and her players for making it to the last four meaning they are now just two games away from an extraordinary fourth successive title, it is worth noting that this delicious chapter in their history-book is not just about dynamic Diana or the fantastic Fowles. For a true champion team to show heart, it takes that all important defence, resilience, determination and a collective mentality built around team-spirit and sheer hard work. I have seen so many teams with stellar names just think it will happen automatically. It doesn't. Names on paper alone mean nothing in basketball. Well done to everyone concerned at Spartak, both on and off the court for ensuring this kind of hard working environment exists.

Fighting Fener

While Fenerbahce can beat themselves up for letting a big opportunity slip through their fingers, they would be wrong. It didn't slip at all. It was wrestled away from them by a basketball genius at the pinnacle of her game. When Fener made their move in the middle two quarters to leave Spartak reeling, a third game looked certain. The Turkish champions were playing quite beautifully and had five players in double digits and were just about containing Taurasi but foul trouble proved costly as their own reference player Penny Taylor picked up her fourth and then fouled out. It seemed that with her departure from the game, the belief of Fener wilted sufficiently to allow Spartak to make their move.

What was completely fascinating and something that Fenerbahce must take immense credit for is that when they did allow their 17 point lead to evaporate, they didn't continue to crumble but ensured the extra period and even during overtime, had their chances to win this classic tie. Fenerbahce have a lot to be proud of. They played their part in the best game of the entire EuroLeague season and found the scoring to trouble the champions while also delivering defensively with a telling six steals from Vardarli. I guess they just didn't have the best player in the world playing on their team which is hardly a crime is it? Congratulations and thanks to Haydar Kemal Ates and his players.

Heaven Sent

If you want to summarise the contribution of Good Angels Kosice to EuroLeague Women this season then I thought the tweet (on Twitter) of Angel McCoughtry was absolutely perfect. She told everyone that she had experienced so much fun and was sad to be leaving. Well, that is exactly how I feel about the yellows exit from the competition. They have provided so much entertainment and amazing value for money.

Even after a mauling in Ekaterinburg and trailing by double-digits at home they didn't just quietly slip away but as usual, played with the same verve, vibrancy and vigour that has been their trademark all season long. Led by Dupree again and their typically aggressive approach, the Slovakian side pushed Ekat right down to the wire. Ultimately, their lack of depth was exposed as expected but to almost take co-favourites Ekat to a third and decisive game in the quarter-finals of the tournament for a place at Final Four is a remarkable achievement. Thanks for the memories guys!

Battle Royale

With Ekat joining Spartak it looks like we can look forward to another potential battle royale at Final Four between the Russian clubs. Congratulations to Coach Vetra and his players but having backed Ekat all season to finish on the top of the podium, I am concerned they have a lot of work to do at the offensive end. While their defence is arguably the best in the tournament, I am concerned they are not turning their potential firepower into actual numbers on the stat sheet. Their productivity needs to be upped a notch if they want to make sure they beat their arch rivals and land the title this year.

Defence, Depth and Delivery

It's been a while for Ros Casares since their reached the promised land of Final Four hasn't it? Well okay not that long really but for the Spanish giants it must seem like such a long time! A sense of relief no doubt for Coach Canto and his players with congratulations from me. They showed Halcon Avenida that they had too much defence, depth and the ability to really deliver when it mattered (watch postgame interview with Elisa Aguilar). Having blown away Salamanca in game one with a powerful display, they had to dig this win out on the road to prevent a decider which might have been an uncomfortable lottery. Their progression to Final Four gives them a real chance to test themselves and remember they do have a win over Ekaterinburg already this season to their name!

The Wrong Number

In my preview of this series, I mentioned the importance of Alba Torrens to Halcon Avenida and explained she was possibly the ‘X Factor' and had to shoot the ball better from outside for her team to win. I hope I am not upsetting anybody by hinting that this young and exciting player has flattered to deceive as I am genuinely a big fan but her numbers do tell a story. As it turned out she was 0 of 7 from behind the three-point line and that didn't help matters although in no way am I placing the blame of defeat on the shoulders of Alba. It was simply a key factor in the series before it started, when it took place and now in the analysis. The fact is that the defence of Ros Casares was too strong and that as a team (not just Torrens), Salamanca shot the ball way too poorly from the arc to make an already tough task, something of a mountain to climb. Having said that, I thought they were dead and buried when they were down by double digits on Friday but they showed real spirit to get back and tie the game down the stretch with the backing of their great fans.

Hanging In The Balance

So with one win each, it is back to Krakow for a winner takes all game with the carrot of the last place in the EuroLeague Women Final Four dangling in front of Wisla Can-Pack and Frisco Sika Brno. After Wisla won that tough first game early last week, you have to really admire the way that Brno responded with that comprehensive victory on their home-floor last Friday. Coach Bobrovsky and his players were really up for this game and despite trailing in the early stages, their superior hustle, transition play and crucially their rebounding proved decisive.

My ‘X-Factor' in this series was the glass and Brno won that battle hands down in the second game. I vividly remember looking at Janell Burse after she had played 13 minutes and being stunned that she hadn't pulled down a single board and that was a worrying sign. I suppose even the slickest and most phenomenal rebounding machines malfunction occasionally and then it emerged she was ill which explained a lot! Throw in the fact that Marta Fernandez had a rare off night and perhaps the result was inevitable.

Hats off to Brno though. They took full advantage of Burse being below par and were just so aggressive in everything they did. From the anger of former Wisla player Skerovic who has really excelled in both games, to the shooting from the wing of Viteckova and the combined power of McWilliams and Bonner.

So what happens now? Well remember that Coach Ratgeber fancied Brno to make it while a certain fellow columnist named Jeff Taylor also told me he probably favoured the Czech champions to progress. I know I should really bow to the superior combined knowledge of these two illustrious souls but I am sticking with Coach Hernandez. I do promise if Brno make me look stupid again, I will finally show some belief at Final Four in their capabilities. However I don't think they will get there if Wisla get back to their best on the boards and a certain Janell Burse is feeling 100% again. Whatever happens, we are in for a real treat and genuinely, the very best of luck to both teams!

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