Euroleague Women Final Four
|Svetlana Abrosimova of UMMC, Katie Douglas of Ros Casares, Isabel Sanchez of Avenida and Sue Bird of Sparta&K all have their eye on the prize, but only one of them will get to take it home on Sunday night|
UMMC Ekaterinburg got their wish at the end of the EuroLeague Women Quarter-Finals.
At last month's All-Star Game in Gdynia, Poland, FIBA Europe announced the Final Four would be hosted by UMMC.
That meant three very important things.
In their quest to capture a European title, UMMC would not have to make a long trip to Spain as they had done the previous two years when they played in Salamanca and Valencia.
It meant they would have thousands of fans cheering them on against Russian rivals Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje on Friday.
But it also meant the club, including general manager Maxim Ryabkov, would have the pressure to deliver a first-class event that is a crown jewel on the European basketball calendar.
Certainly in that last respect, no one is doubting that UMMC are going to do a first-class job.
Whether they can take advantage of the home court in their clash with Sparta&K remains to be seen.
There is no rivalry in Russia right now like UMMC and Sparta&K.
Every time the teams play, fans have the luxury to watch some of the best basketball players in the world.
For three years running, at least in the EuroLeague Women Final Four, the stars have shined brighter for Sparta&K.
|To say there is a sense of deja-vu in the all-Russian semi-final is an understatement. Will it be Candace Parker's turn to smile this time?|
Friday's pivotal game could be different, though.
A certain someone is no longer in the Sparta&K side.
"Before, we knew we had to stop player number one," UMMC coach Gundars Vetra said.
"But now, they don't have Diana Taurasi.
"Sparta&K have to play more as a team but they still have very good players.
"For sure, they are still a very, very dangerous team."
Sparta&K don't have Taurasi, nor the player that could very easily have been named Final Four MVP last year, Janel McCarville (Beretta-Famila Schio).
Sylvia Fowles left for Galatasaray and Marina Karpunina, Sparta&K's defensive stopper, got hurt before the start of the season.
Yet Sparta&K have the same coach, Pokey Chatman, the same point guard in Sue Bird and the same attitude.
They are going to play hard and smart and see where that takes them.
Bird, as has been the case before, didn't join the team until after the Christmas break.
Her arrival coincided with the signing of Taj McWilliams, the replacement for Australia superstar Lauren Jackson who was injured and lost for the season in December.
|Sparta&K might have lost a number of valuable players, but their backcourt is still boasting the likes of Ilona Korstin, Sue Bird, Epiphany Prince or Noelle Quinn|
There is also the high-scoring Epiphanny Prince, the veteran Russians Ilona Korstin and Irina Osipova, and the Serbian duo of Jelena Milovanovic and Sonja Petrovic.
Noelle Quinn also provides firepower for Pokey Chatman's team.
So Sparta&K may no longer have Taurasi or other celebrated names, but they have a team that was good enough to sweep Fenerbahce in the last eight to advance to a fifth straight Final Four.
Bird and Sparta&K know they're in for a hard game, though.
"We've been the team that's prevented them from winning for the last three years so I know they're going to be motivated," Bird said.
UMMC have also had some upheaval.
Ann Wauters and Agnieszka Bibrzycka, aka 'Biba', started the year with the team but had to stop playing for personal reasons.
The team also had Crystal Langhorne early on but had to let her go to make way for Candace Parker after Christmas.
The team replaced Biba with Zuzana Zirkova.
The core of the team from years past is still intact.
There are French pair Celine Dumerc and Sandrine Gruda, Russia national team players Svetlana Abrosimova, Maria Stepanova, Olga Arteshina and Tatiana Vidmer and American guards Cappie Pondexter and Deanna Nolan.
"We're different but even better," Vetra said.
In their Russian encounters so far this season, UMMC have won all the games.
Sparta&K, many people would argue, are the best team in EuroLeague Women history.
|Anke De Mondt could hardly be more excited ahead of the Final Four. Avenida work hard, are well balanced and confident, she says|
If they capture a fifth title in a row this weekend, that incredible streak is going to continue.
The Second Semi-Final
In Spain, there exists a rivalry that is every bit as intense and it will be on show at the Final Four, too.
Halcon Avenida and Ros Casares are the powerhouses in the country, although Rivas Ecopolis beat them both to win the Copa de la Reina this season.
Avenida, who are based in Salamanca, and Valencia's Ros, will meet in Friday's other Quarter-Final.
While Ros Casares have won more titles over the years, they have taken a backseat in Spain this season to Avenida, losing all three of their encounters.
Anke De Mondt, Avenida's Belgian sharpshooter, says her ballclub couldn't be any more confident.
"We're really excited," she said.
"This year, we have a great team.
"We're more balanced, have more of a rotation. We work very hard in practice, even those that don't play as much."
The team has great play all over the court. There is point guard Silvia Dominguez, the captain.
Belinda Snell is the team's sharpshooter, and Alba Torrens the versatile guard who relishes appearing on the big stage.
|Ros Casares have less solutions inside than Avenida and a lot will depend on their point guards, Laia Palau and Edwige Lawson, forcing turnovers and enabling the team to score in transition|
Anna Montanana, like Torrens, can hurt opponents inside or out, and down low are Sancho Lyttle and Erika De Souza.
Also providing firepower from outside are Anke De Mondt and Isa Sanchez.
"Right now, we're in a good moment," De Mondt said to Basketball World News.
"Everyone is working hard and staying positive.
"We probably have a psychological advantage over them right now but we can't rely on that.
"We know they have a lot of experience in this EuroLeague, too, and are a great team.
"We have to focus on ourselves."
Ros Casares are a great team but haven't been playing like it.
They had late-season defeats to Avenida and Rivas in Spain's Liga Femenina and the team has yet to recover from the loss of forward Sonia Reis.
If Ros have an advantage against Avenida, it may be in the backcourt with Laia Palau, Nuria Martinez and Katie Douglas all responsible for handling the ball.
The team has a couple of feisty competitors in the low post in Cindy Lima and Rebbekah Brunson.
Success and failure for Ros Casares will be decided by their defense.
If they can harass Avenida, especially in the backcourt, force turnovers and score in transition, they'll have a chance.
Both teams' coaches and players had a lot of time to think about this game.
They logged a lot of air miles to get to the Final Four.
"It's a really long trip," De Mondt said.
The atmosphere should be to the liking of all players.
"It's a great gym with a lot of fans, similar to our gym where we love to play so, it's going to be good for us," De Mondt said.
Is there a favorite this weekend?
"I think it's wide open this year," DeMondt said, "although Ekat probably have the best team and they're at home."