|Paul 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.|
There are only two absolute certainties with the EuroLeague Women Final Four this year.
A Russian and a Spanish team will play in the Final while both semi-final losers will have to swallow the most bitter of pills when they fall to their fiercest rivals.
Outside of that, even my supposed inside track of the competition doesn't really mean I am able to even get any kind of a handle of what to expect from the big event.
|Celine Dumerc and UMMC have beaten Sparta&K twice in the Russian domestic league this season, but will they feel the historic weight of three successive lost EuroLeague Women semi-finals on their shoulders?|
While on paper it could be argued it is one of the most evenly matched season finales in memory, the unofficial motto of the competition this season is ‘expect the unexpected' and so we have been duly warned.
Whatever happens in Ekaterinburg, I genuinely think the desire to land the biggest prize in women's club basketball has been turned up an extra level this year.
While I fully accept clubs have always been determined to be crowned winners of EuroLeague Women, this season just seems to have been an absolute dog fight to make it to the Final Four with teams who have expressed outlandish ambition such as Fenerbahce not even clutching an invite to the party.
Is it just me who believes that each participant this year has a bigger reason than ever to want to try and finish on the top of the podium? I really can't remember quite so much drama and intrigue affecting teams at the event during the recent past.
Meanwhile, losing any semi-final is sickening but I suspect crashing to your fiercest rivals in such an important game is bordering on absolutely unbearable which gives this year a special kind of edge because of rivalry overspill and history from the two respective domestic leagues.
It is really exciting but at some point this weekend players, coaches, owners and fans will have to endure the sinking feeling of watching their opponents celebrate on the final buzzer and deal with the disappointment that brings. It's a crushing prospect but the draw of what jubilation will feel like should suiccess be forthcoming is almost immeasurable.
Take the case of defending champions Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje. You could be forgiven for thinking that when clubs achieve their level of success, they become vulnerable to complacency or believing they have had their day in the sun.
However in the case of Pokey Chatman and her players, their motivation seems even stronger than ever. After all, they are going for an astonishing and unprecedented fifth straight title despite having lost their kingpin Diana Taurasi and also the hugely influential Lauren Jackson.
|Natalia Hejkova and Pokey Chatman, the two women coaches in this Final Four, go into their respective semi-finals with the confidence of someone who's been there and done that before|
They seem intent on showing their champion heart and continuing to prove the doubters wrong. Whether it is those who wrote off their chances after they lost a number of games during the Qualifying Round or ramming the words back down the throats of those who tried to belittle their success in recent seasons as being merely down to financial muscle, they still look like a tough nut to crack.
You can also throw another major motivator into the mix. What better place to potentially make further history in EuroLeague Women than on the home floor of your fiercest rivals?
UMMC Ekaterinburg meanwhile are no doubt fed up with being the bridesmaid and never the bride in recent years. They have always clearly signalled their determination to land the piece of silverware they crave the most and you sense that hosting the event only ramps up their desire and dare I say expectations even more.
I have predicted them to do it every year recently and each time Sparta&K and mostly Diana Taurasi have made me eat my words. Now I am not making any predictions anymore but only asking whether Ekat could have more reason or opportunity to win this competition than this weekend? I seriously doubt it.
Perhaps it's just me, but the feeling that this could be the last chance for this particular group of Ekat players seems palpable. Should they not win, it will be fascinating to see what happens in the summer months.
|Halcon Avenida center Erika De Souza is such an established player that has nothing to prove to anyone, but maybe getting "revenge" on Ros has crossed her mind|
Not only that, but you have to suspect another EuroLeague Women Final Four loss to Sparta&K will really stick in their throat.
Then we have Ros Casares who let a great chance of winning the prize slip through their fingers last year.
After changing most of their team during last summer in a high profile rebuilding exercise , replacing the coach midway through the season, losing the Copa De La Reina on their home court, finishing top of their Group in the Qualifying Round, suffering big injury blows and losing some significant games in Liga Femenina, it really has been a dramatic sequence of events.
Natalia Hejkova has of course seen it all before and knows what it takes to be successful - Yet even she will be under intense pressure to deliver and with everything that has happened during the last 12 months, you sense Ros Casares and particularly General Manager Carme Lluveras would just love it more than ever if they could complete their mission and win two games this weekend.
Last but not least, I looked at Halcon Avenida and initially thought that maybe they don't have the added motivational factors - only the standard desire to win which is of course more than enough.
However, with the likes of Erika DeSouza and Anna Montanana now dressed in blue and taking into account the post-Final Four fall out last year at Ros Casares, I guess those two key players might just be more than a little hyped.
My heart is already beating that little bit faster. I even find myself prematurely grimacing and nervously hiding behind my hands in sympathy for the losers when I picture the scenarios in my mind.
The contrast with the limitless joy for whoever raises the silverware aloft after the final buzzer sounds could not be starker.
Yes, when as a mere neutral you are thinking about it 24/7 several days beforehand, your palms are sweating with nerves and you tingle with excitement in anticipation of the big occasion, it really must mean a potentially epic weekend of elite women's basketball is just around the corner.