|Israel international Shay Doron is one of the most experienced players on the Elitzur Ramla roster, having seen action in EuroLeague Women and EuroBasket Women|
By Jeff Taylor
Elitzur Ramla are not first-timers in the EuroCup Women Semi-Finals.
No, the Israeli club, which is hosting defending champions Sony Athinaikos on Thursday and travelling to Greece for the second leg next week, came oh so close to reaching the title series in 2008.
They beat BC Moscow in the first leg but fell in the second to lose 152-140 on aggregate.
Some of the players in that team are in this year's, too.
Yet when people were sizing up this year's competition, there weren't many giving Elitzur Ramla a chance to go all the way.
The team coached by Adan Inbar is trying to do just that, though.
They are four tough games away from celebrating the finest moment in club history.
It comes as no surprise to Ramla's big signing, Le'Coe Willingham.
"I thought the management and staff did an excellent job putting together the team," the power forward said.
"Adan knew what type of players he wanted for his system, and I think everyone fits perfectly.
"I expected us to be very competitive.
"I think the best way to describe it is, we may have surprised some in Europe, but we haven't surprised ourselves."
There is a lot to like about this team.
The up-tempo style is fun to watch, and there is a real togetherness that is evident both on and off the court.
Some players, like Willingham and Doron, get a lot of coverage, but Inbar says it truly has been a team effort.
"Yes, we play with 10 players," Inbar said.
"Everyone on the bench plays and plays important minutes for the team, even if it's not scoring but doing a lot of little things that we can't win without.
Just once, back on December 2, have Elitzur fallen in the EuroCup, a 77-64 defeat at Dynamo-GUVD in Russia.
In Europe, the team is riding a six-game winning streak, the last two victories coming in a two-game sweep of Spanish outfit Gran Canaria in the Quarter-Finals.
Next up will be the biggest challenge of the season, a two-legged tie against Athinaikos.
"We are very excited to go to Greece," Inbar said.
"I know a lot of fans want to join us.
"Also, Sony Athinakos is a great club with a good coach (Ioannis Ktistakis) and a lot of good players.
"(But) I think that if you want to win a championship, you need to knock out the champ, and they won last year so if we want to win, we need to beat them on the way."
Respect For The Greeks
Athinaikos are special.
The majority of the players were in last year's side that went unbeaten in Greece, won the Greek Cup and the EuroCup Women.
Olga Chatzinikolaou, Dimitra Kalentzou, Aikaterina Sotiriou, Iouliti Lymoura, Afroditi Kosma and Nikole Soulis are all Greek internationals.
There is also a Team USA Olympic gold-medal winner, Ruth Riley, big American center Latoya Davis, Belarus international Marina Kress and Montenegro international Ana Baletic.
|LeCoe Willingham, who played for Halcon Avenida last season, is Elitzur's leading scorer and rebounder in EuroCup Women|
"We have a lot of respect for Athinakos, but we will do our best in order to win against them," Inbar said.
"Israeli basketball fans are very excited that the game will be on TV in Israel and many people want to see us succeed and make history for our country and our club."
One player that is extremely happy to be wearing an Elitzur Ramla uniform again is Doron, who with teammate Laine Selwyn were on the 2008 team.
Both are Israel national team players.
Doron made a name for herself in America while playing for the Maryland Terrapins and helping them capture an NCAA title.
The 25-year-old competed with Besiktas in the 2009 EuroLeague Women and also appeared in that season's All-Star Game in Paris.
For Israel at the EuroBasket Women in Latvia two years ago, Doron averaged 18.3 points per game.
"Playing in my own country is the best feeling in the world," Doron said.
"After games, I'm with my family and friends who get to support me all year.
"Also, the weather in Israel is perfect!"
Doron says the coach has done a great job getting the players to focus on defense.
"I think the whole year, we have relied on our defense and it is helping us win by a lot at home and still win on the road as well," she said.
"Also, we have great chemistry between a lot of unselfish players. We play as a team on both ends. It's a fun team to play on."
Having reached the Quarter-Finals of the EuroCup Women last season with Romanians Municipal Targoviste, she has gone one step better this season already after averaging 16.7 points per game with Ramla.
The Willingham Factor
Without question, Elitzur Ramla would not be where they are now without Willingham, a player that has turned into a statistical giant of sorts.
Willingham in 2009 and 2010 helped make Halcon Avenida one of the best teams in Spain and the EuroLeague Women.
In Europe, she averaged 16.1 points and 7.6 rebounds in her first season and 14.5 and 7.1 in the second.
Willingham holds on to the memory of her two-year stay in Spain as if it were a prized possession.
"Going to the (2009 Euroleague Women) Final Four, then the championship game with Salamanca, was very special and something that won't be forgotten," she said.
"I guess the feeling of this year is somewhat similar to the feelings we were having then.
"Truthfully, no one believed in us until we appeared.
"Then hosting the Final Four was awesome."
Avenida basketball is best known for its crowd support.
"Salamanca by far has one of the biggest and most loyal followings in women's basketball in Europe," Willingham said.
"I remember the energy from the crowd, a sea of blue.
"I remember my teammates and how happy we were.
"I remember even rejoicing when we lost the Final, because to us, we won. We did something special for the city of Salamanca and the fans and it was a beautiful feeling."
Willingham's importance to Elitzur Ramla is unquestioned.
In 10 EuroCup Women games, she has averaged 19.1 points and 11.1 rebounds.
In the home leg of the Quarter-Final against Gran Canaria that Ramla won 78-54 to take command, she poured in 23 points and corralled 21 boards.
The Running Game
Elitzur Ramla are happiest, and most successful, when they get out on the fast break.
Willingham liked to play that way at Avenida and she and her Ramla teammates feel most comfortable with it in Israel.
One of the best-known players in Israeli basketball history is Anat Draigor and she says it's the ideal style for this group of players.
"Pressure on the ball all the time and stealing the ball and making easy baskets - Doron, (Tanasha) Wright, Selwyn," Draigor said.
Willingham knows that Athinaikos will try to control the tempo.
"It will be a tough series," Willingham said.
"However for us to be successful, we need to stick to what we do best.
"We love to play up-tempo and get after teams on defense.
"If we can play our style and rebound the ball, I believe we have a chance to be in the final series."
The importance of the Athinaikos series to women's basketball in Israel cannot be overstated.
"For the state of Israel, it is very important that a women's basketball team succeeds in Europe," Draigor said.
"This contributes to the exposure of playing basketball for young girls.
"Games are broadcast on television, basketball players are a good role model to achieve and attain success in women sports in general, and basketball in particular."
Draigor says the coaching staff deserves a lot of applause at Elitzur Ramla.
"The group has an excellent basketball coach who by profession is also a lawyer, and a professional staff - Eidan Avshalom, Nimrod Meital - that works personally with players," she said.
"Our coach," Doron said, "is one of a kind.
"He is a player's coach 100% and I know it's a big part of the success we have.
"He picked the players and put us in a system where we will be great, so I love working with him and the assistant coach, who always have smiles on their faces.
"And in crunch time during games, you want their basketball minds on your sideline."
Inbar does concede that winning a title in Europe was the aim.
"The expectations were to get as far at least to the final eight," Inbar said.
"We built a team to try to win EuroCup.
"We knew we had a good base of players and if we put things together, it would be a very good team that could compete all the way in the EuroCup."
The Athinaikos games should be good ones.
"I know they are a great team and will be our toughest challenge yet," Doron said.
"They are balanced on offense so it's hard to key on any player, similar to our team.
"I know it will be a good series."