Lietuvos Telekomas go into their biggest game of the season today in Brno with what is undoubtedly their toughest challenge.
Last season the Lithuanians made it to their first ever EuroLeague Final Four where they were beaten in the semi-finals by home side and eventual champions BC Volgaburmash Samara 66-58.
Almost exactly 12 months later, and with another successful regular season to their name, the task remains the same. Beat the defending champions to get a shot at the title, or be happy with the accomplishment of reaching the Final Four.
For Lietuvos veteran Jurgita Streimikyte, playing in her fifth EuroLeague Final Four (she has yet to win a title), the goal is clear.
"If we didn't think we have a chance to win, we wouldn't be here."
|Katie Douglas will need to be at the very to of her game against Samara|
Any chance that Lietuvos have against Samara will revolve around their ability to control Samara's twin towers Ann Wauters (195 cm) and Maria Stepanova (202 cm) and the performance of their own star, Katie Douglas.
The task of battling Samara's giants is at the top of Streimkyte's game to-do list.
"I think I know how to play Wauters because she is tall like me, Stepanova she is tall like me. I think we will try to play more team defense, to help each other. I will try to play my best defense, but we need to stop them to win the game," she said.
Samara have plenty of weapons other than Stepanova and Wauters, but in Katie Douglas, Lietuvos can call on the EuroLeague's deadliest scorer. Douglas leads the league at 20.7 points per game, and is the competition's top scorer for the second consecutive season.
"I go into every game not really looking to score, just trying to help my team to do whatever I can to help them win," said Douglas.
"If Samara try to come at me with two or three people, that just lets other people step up. I've got quality people around me so it's not just about me scoring, I have confidence in my teammates.
Lietuvos return an almost identical roster as last season's Final Four and according to Douglas, an extra year of playing together will be an additional boost to their championship hopes.
"I think we are more poised, mature, we've played together now for 2 years, so we have better chemistry and it's easier when things get tougher, we know how to fight back. That's been the difference this year, so I just feel we are more mature, ready to handle anything that anybody throws at us," she said.
Nonetheless, there is no escaping the fact that Samara are once again the favourites to lift the trophy.
"There are not many weaknesses that this team has," said Douglas.
"Obviously they won the EuroLeague last year and we faced them in the same position so we're definitely going in as the underdogs, but we're relishing that role and were gonna try to stick together, play our game and expoit any weakness we can find throughout the game."
As focused as Douglas is on beating Samara, the Russians are just as focused on stopping the Lietuvos Telekomas star.
“We have to control Katie Douglas but that’s a hard thing to do. She’s very aggressive so whoever guards her needs to be aggressive as well. As she is left-handed, we will try to force her right,” said Samara newcomer Amaya Valdemoro.
It is a sentiment echoed by team captain Ilona Korstin.
|Amaya Valdemoro is recovering from a recent shoulder injury|
"Yeah we're gonna try to stop her but a short while ago we played against Dynamo Moscow and Diana Taurasi. They are the same kind of player and that's why we are prepared. We defended well against Taurasi and even when she scored 30 points, we won the game. So if Douglas scores I don't know how many points and we can close another player, that's ok."
Korstin refuses to be drawn on a potential rematch against Brno in the final, and insists that Lietuvos offer a very real threat to the champions.
"The most important thing is to concentrate on the game against Vilnius. Everybody starts to speak about the final, youre gonna play Brno, but I think that Vilnius is actually better than Brno right now," she said.
Nonetheless, Korstin is well aware what her team is capable of.
"I think we can do it (win the EuroLeague) because we are the European champions. Last year we won the EuroLeague and this year we have only lost one game so we are very motivated and we don't have as much pressure like last year when we are at home."
Lietuvos go into today's semi-final at full strength, although their last competitive game was almost one month ago, game three of the EuroLeague quarter-final play-offs against MiZo Pecs.
Samara are coming off a Russian Cup victory against Ekaterinburg one week ago. Spanish forward Amaya Valdemoro returns from a shoulder injury which sidelined her for three weeks, and although she is expected to play her minutes may be limited.
Wauters gave her coaching staff a scare in Thursday's practice when she turned an ankle, but it proved to be a minor sprain and she will be fully fit for the semi-final.