By Paul Nilsen
|Plenty of new faces to get used to for Ivana Matovic and her Fenerbahce teammates|
They say the truth can be stranger than fiction and you could easily argue this is the case when it comes to Fenerbahce right now. Who would have believed that by the time their final game of the Qualifying Round tipped-off, they would be unbeaten and yet waved goodbye to their two most important and high profile players in Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor?
This is one match-up we have all had in the diary right since day one although in truth, we probably expected the home team to be trying to live up to their summer hype and to make up for defeat in Russia during the reverse fixture.
Only Fenerbahce didn't lose in Russia of course having inflicted the rarest of home defeats on Ekat back in November while who could have imagined the presence of both Angel McCoughtry and Anete Jekabsone in a Fener vest for this game?
Absolutely nobody could have predicted the water that has passed under the bridge and it has happened so fast it is still early days to re-assess the potential of Fenerbahce to go all of the way and win Final Four this year.
It's certainly been eventful in Istanbul and aside from their home blip against Fener and the loss of the pregnant Ann Wauters, it has generally been business as usual for the tournament favourites Ekaterinburg.
Candace Parker is back again for the business end of the season and of course that can only be good for EuroLeague Women and the competition generally.
Ekat will certainly not want to lose again and drop to two losses against their ambitious Turkish hosts. In fact they will probably be desperate to prove a point and extract revenge in what will be a high class game complimented by a turbo charged atmosphere.
There are many who argue the slick Ekat machine rarely needs to do anything other than sit comfortably in cruise control during the bulk of the Qualifying Round. However, against a high quality Fenerbahce team who are also being tipped to finish top of the podium, they might have to shift through the gears and step on the gas to get over the finish line.
Previous Meeting - Both clubs met on the fifth week of the Qualifying Round and Fenerbahce came away from Ekaterinburg with a super 73-67 success thanks mainly to Diana Taurasi who drilled home five triples,
The Form - Fenerbahce sit proudly unbeaten with 9 wins from 9 games at the top of Group C while also topping the table domestically with arch rivals Galatasaray with 11 wins and one defeat. UMMC Ekaterinburg meanwhile are second in Group C with 8 victories and that solitary defeat to Fener. They are however in pole position and unbeaten in the Russian league with 12 wins.
Perimeter & Penetration - Ekat will of course be led by the dynamic Cappie Pondexter as she goes back to where it all began for her on this side of the Pond. Deanna Nolan and assists leader Celine Dumerc provide great options but in truth, the Ekat backcourt has been merely quietly efficient this season. It has been the frontcourt that has done the bulk of the damage so far in terms of production.
In terms of a perimeter threat, Ekat have relied heavily on the multi-talented Agnieszka Bibrzycka to step outside and showcase her all round skills to help out Pondexter in the triple stakes.
While the loss of Diana Taurasi and her ability to drop the triple on opponents as well as a multitude of other ways to score will hurt Fenerbahce, it is important they still have a lot of experience in the backcourt. It might not be as prolific as some in terms of offensive firepower but Hana Horakova knows how to get the job done and is a safe pair of hands while Birsel Vardarli is as intelligent a player as you could find and will get the ball to the right spots on the floor. Esmeral Tuncluer meanwhile is another Turkish player who has been something of an unsung hero this season during this terrific unbeaten run playing almost 20 minutes per game and looking rock solid throughout that time at both ends of the court. Naturally Anete Jekabsone-Zogota brings her wealth of talent too but even for her it is probably asking a little too much to have an instant impact after so little time to prepare for this game.
|Sandrine Gruda and her frontcourt partner Candace Parker will have a lot of work with the twin towers of Ivana Matovic and Nevriye Yilmaz as well as new Fener signing Angel McCoughtry|
In The Paint - There can't have been many games down the years that have had so much quality in the paint for a Qualifying Round match-up. This contest is jam-packed with high class frontcourt talent. Usually Fenerbahce can utilise the excellent trio of Penny Taylor, Ivana Matovic and Nevriye Yilmaz to great effect against opponents. Now it will be Matovic, Yilmaz and of course recent arrival and more flexible Angel McCoughtry. That still gives the home team some great options but when you look at the match-ups, it's fair to say that they will have their work cut out to dominate as they usually do. Ekat didn't perform in the 4 and 5 positions during the first meeting and will be looking to correct that. While one againtey will obviously miss the legendary Ann Wauters, they have basically replaced the efficiency of Crystal Langhorne with the power and star quality of Candace Parker. With the experience of Stepanova, the never less than influential Sandrine Gruda and reliable Olga Arteshina, they have an absolutely remarkable amount of depth and talent.
The Hot Hands - Fenerbahce have been relying on Taurasi and Taylor for much of the season but recently it's been post duo Matovic and Yilmaz who have had to step up and put up the numbers for their team. For Ekat meanwhile, Gruda has been on good form for most of the season while Parker racked up 23 points during her first game last week.
The ‘X Factors' - You could argue there is only one real ‘X Factor' in this game and that is whether the roster changes have had an impact on chemistry for Fenerbahce. Common sense would dictate it's kind of an inevitable bi-product of player movement, especially when it is the big stars of a team. Equally, I think Fener have lost some of their three-point threat and not being able to pound and bully the visitors inside like they have done with other opponents due to the strength of the Ekat frontcourt is particularly worrying for them.
Rising Star Watch - In a game that would grace any EuroLeague Women Final Four, it's fair to say that the scope for rising stars to showcase their potential is somewhat diminished! Besides, these are two teams generally packed with established stars - although the hosts do have a huge teenage talent in Ozge Kavurmacioglu on their roster but her opportunity will be for next year and beyond.
Did You Know? - None of the leading scorers or rebounders during the first game earlier in the Qualifying Round will play this time. Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and Crystal Langhorne have all left the competition for one reason or another!.
What They Say - Fenerbahce head coach Laszlo Ratgeber, "UMMC Ekaterinburg comes to Istanbul on Wednesday and they are the team with the strongest ranking roster right now. They are a team that have lost the last three semi-finals and I watched all three live, (especially the second one of course) and they still remain the number one favourite to win EuroLeague Women right now. Now is the worst moment for us. We have lost two important players. One earlier this week and also one more a month ago. We have got two new players with one last week and the other only had their first practice this week. However, this game is about a lot more than this. We've been playing great basketball, more than great in fact, I would say brilliant. We are on the top of the league without a EuroLeague Women loss and also on the top of the Turkish Championship but after everything recently, we will maybe need a little time to be good again. We are going to go hard on Wednesday against Ekat and we want to show our power. We play at our home court and we have our fantastic crowd there. We're going to do everything to win. Whatever happens on Wednesday, my wish is to see them at least once again this season!"
UMMC Ekaterinburg head coach Gundars Vetra, "During the last match we didn't cope with the centers of Fenerbahce and sometimes made wrong decisions in our offence, while they also managed to nail us with a couple of crazy baskets. We have analyzed our mistakes and for all of the last week or so, we have been preparing for this game against Fenerbahce. I suppose our own centers are good in defence under the basket now and we have also improved on offence, and overall, we are playing wiser now."
UMMC Ekaterinburg guard Cappie Pondexter on returning to Istanbul, "It should be a very competitive game as there is a lot on the line. Most importantly of all, I am really looking forward to returning to where my European career started! I will always love the fans at Fenerbahce!"