By Jeff Taylor, PA Sport
Gambrinus Sika Brno figured they would make it back to the EuroLeague Women Final Four but the road probably had a few more bumps than expected.
After their painful 69-66 defeat in the 2005 final against BC Volgaburmash, many of the Gambrinus stars got the loss out of their system by beating some of those same Russian players in the EuroBasket Women title game to capture gold for the Czech Republic.
Even Gambrinus coach Jan Bobrovsky had the last laugh as he coached the Czech team at the EuroBasket Women.
|Jan Bobrovsky coached the Czech Republic to the EuroBasket gold medal last year.|
If any team has unfinished business at the EuroLeague Women, it's Gambrinus.
They have missed just one final four (2002) since making their first appearance in 2000 yet they have never won it.
Despite their talent, experience and sense of purpose, this year they went close to missing the Final Four all together.
Bobrovsky & Co finished top of qualifying Group B with eight wins and two defeats, losing to MKB Euroleasing and Bourges but steamrolling their opponents in the rest of the games.
In the eighth-finals, Gambrinus made quick work of USO Mondeville Basket, clinching that best-of-three series in just two games with a 62-44 win in Brno and a 92-58 victory in France.
Everyone expected them to win the next series, too, even against Bourges - three times winners of the EuroLeague Women and one of the only sides to beat the Czechs this year.
Bourges had home court advantage in games one and three, however, and proved to be a huge hurdle to clear.
Gambrinus were pushed to the limit before escaping 62-59 on February 21 with Jana Vesela, one of the holdovers from last year's team, scoring 17 points and pulling down 10 rebounds.
If they thought they had seen the best Bourges had to offer, they were mistaken because in Brno the French club turned the tables on February 24 and romped to a 75-65 triumph despite 18 points from Hana Machova, another of the holdovers from last year and, like Vesela, a EuroBasket gold medalist.
Bobrovsky had admitted his surprise and even sounded a little worried.
"I do not understand why we played like this," he said after the defeat.
"We played very poorly - mostly on defense and that helped our opponents a lot. We got nothing against their defense for the entire 40 minutes."
Machova, one of the grittiest competitors in all of Europe, warned her team-mates: "We have to battle."
She was right because Bourges, with their famous home crowd backing them all the way, were ready to fight, too.
When Czech tormentor Laia Palau of Spain made a three-pointer and then added a pair of free throws to give Bourges a 66-61 advantage with 3:25 to go, the Czechs looked as if they might be at the end of the road but they refused to lose.
Machova earned a trip to the charity stripe and made two to trim the deficit to 66-63. After Palau missed a jumper, Machova found herself going back to the line and made two more to cut the deficit to 66-65 with 1:59 to go.
On their next possession, center Petra Kulichova buried a jump shot for the Brno team and suddenly they led 67-66.
Bourges really tested Gambrinus, though, because when Machova fouled Pauline Krawczyk with 1:15 to go, she made two free throws to put the hosts back in front.
|De Lisha Milton leads Gambrinus in scoring with 16.1 ppg.|
Right on cue, Eve Viteckova, one of Gambrinus' and the Czech Republic's most reliable three-point shooters, drained a shot from the arc for a 70-68 lead with 1:02 to play.
Bourges trimmed the deficit by making one of two from the line and then, due in part to Gambrinus' defense, missed a pair of potential game-winning three-pointers at the end.
The relief on Bobrovsky's face in the post-game press conference was clear.
"This win is very important for us," he said. "By winning the third game of a quarter-final away from home by one point, another of my basketball dreams has come true."
Gambrinus have been made hosts of the EuroLeague Women Final Four but there is no doubt they have have a long way to go.
They must beat yet another French team in US Valenciennes - champions of the EuroLeague Women two years ago.
There is no question that Gambrinus are capable of winning the title.
There are so many strengths in the team that it almost seems as if it is their turn.
First and foremost, Gambrinus have continuity. Machova, Vesela, Viteckova and Kulichova are all Gambrinus veterans who also played together with the Czech national side.
The side has experience. Again, they have played in so many final fours and very importantly, many of these players tasted triumph in Turkey at the EuroBasket Women last summer.
Gambrinus win the loose balls, they rebound and they spread around the points. Maybe most important, they have more than just one player that is willing to step up and hit the big shot.
If not Viteckova burying the three-pointer - the 1.90m forward made and astounding 29 of 51 (56.9%) from the arc in the EuroLeague this season - then Machova or Vesela will step up.
They also have that touch of class from the United States in Delisha Milton.
Milton is the consummate team player and a gold medal winner with Team USA.
She, too, is willing to take the big shot if the game is on the line.
Her 16.1 points per game leads the team in scoring in Europe.
Nykasha Sales isn't as polished, but she is a quality player as well.
USVO are going to be ready, and Volgaburmash are likely to make the final, which means there are two incredible games face Gambrinus if they are going to win the title.
They will never have a better chance. Gambrinus are playing at home, and they have a great team.
Maybe this will finally be the year it happens for the Czech giants in the EuroLeague Women.