Final Four: Stepanova Stands Tall As UMMC Threaten Spartak Hegemony

13 March 2009
By Oleksiy Naumov
The tide may be turning in Russia where UMMC Ekaterinburg are attempting to overtake Spartak Moscow Region as the country's number one team.

UMMC beat Spartak in the Cup of Russia a week ago, and followed that up with an important Superleague triumph which gave them the inside track to home-court advantage throughout the play-offs.

The biggest meeting between the two sides won't come until April 3, however, when Spartak and UMMC wage war again at the EuroLeague Women Final Four in Salamanca, Spain.

Will UMMC build on their recent momentum?

23. Cappie Pondexter (UMMC Ekaterinburg)
Cappie Pondexter has been a useful addition to the Ekaterinburg roster

"It's hard to tell, because women's basketball is unpredictable," UMMC's Maria Stepanova said to Basketball World News for FIBA Europe.

"I am sure coaches will have to find something new to surprise the opponents."

Spartak are the two-time defending champions of the EuroLeague Women and boast a glittering array of talent.

The team has Lauren Jackson of Australia and Olympic champions Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles of Team USA along with quality Russia internationals like Tatiana Shchegoleva, Marina Karpunina and Irina Osipova.

American playmaker Kelly Miller, who has a Russian passport, also plays big minutes for Spartak.

There are two differences to the Spartak team of this season, however, compared to the previous title-winning sides.

Spartak do not have Team USA's Tina Thompson, arguably the most important player on those championship teams, while coach Natalia Hejkova was replaced by Laszlo Ratgeber.

There are also significant differences with this year's UMMC Ekaterinburg team, with the biggest change happening after the Olympics when the team signed USA point guard and former Fenerbahce star Cappie Pondexter.

UMMC did more than just tinker with the team after that.

Still looking second-best compared to Spartak, the club decided to bring in Europe's best-known player, Maria Stepanova and then, in a bizarre set of events, UMMC parted with French coach Laurent Buffard and appointed Gundars Vetra.

The coaching change has worked, but it was unusual to say the least since Vetra had been in charge of one of the enemies shortly before his arrival.

Stepanova, who had played under Vetra, showed up at UMMC first and struggled.

A communication gap existed between Buffard and the Russian players, according to the latter.

Stepanova says her reunion with Vetra helped turn her season around.

"Oh, big time," she said.

"Honestly, I couldn't quite figure out coach Buffard's system and the role he had for me, so my adjustment in the new team was a struggle.

"It became a lot easier both mentally and tactically and I guess that helped me."

Stepanova is a very good player, but one would be hard-pressed to call her the most important to UMMC.

Some might say it is their Poland international Agnieszka Bibrzycka or one of their Americans, Pondexter, Deanna Nolan or Asjha Jones.

The tough-as-nails Russia international Svetlana Abrosimova would get votes, as would Sandrine Gruda of France and Yelena Leuchanka of Belarus.

25. Svetlana Abrosimova (UMMC Ekaterinburg)
Svetlana Abrosimova's versatility has helped the UMMC cause

Maybe that is the strength of this team. A different player stands out from one game to the next.

There is little question that the acquisition of Stepanova from CSKA made UMMC stronger on the court, though, and more visible off it.

The 30-year-old is the face of Russian basketball and the most popular player in the game.

Three times in the last four years, Stepanova has been voted FIBA Europe Women's Player of the Year.

The third Player of the Year award that she captured in February took her by surprise.

"That was something I didn't expect," the 2.03m center said.

"I can't call this (previous) season my most successful, so maybe my previous achievements helped the voters. But I was happy nonetheless."

Stepanova had a very difficult time at CSKA this season but even so, she did well enough overall with both teams to earn a place in the Europe team for the EuroLeague Women All-Star Game in Paris.

Sadly for her and teammate Bibrzycka, she says, the two were told they wouldn't be allowed to travel to Paris to take part in the high-profile event.

In addition to the All-Star Game, players went to the Eiffel Tower, had dinner on a boat on the River Seine and visited children in hospitals in a truly remarkable weekend.

"Well, I was going to go and was getting ready for the event, but the coaching staff decided at the last minute we should skip it to stay fresh for Tuesday's game which was perhaps the most important game of the season," Stepanova said.

"I understood this, but still got upset. Paris is such a beautiful city.

"It's disappointing to miss an opportunity to visit it. I heard the girls had a photo shoot in front of the Eiffel Tower and also had a boat tour. It must have been a lot of fun."

The focus now is on the Final Four, and everyone is wondering if Vetra or his Spartak counterpart Ratgeber held anything back in the last two meetings.

"No, definitely not," Stepanova said.

"The stakes in these two games were too high - the Cup of Russia and first place in the Championship."

One thing is certain.

The April 3 showdown in Spain is a game that everyone should watch because it's likely to be a classic.


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