By Paul Nilsen
For four-time EuroLeague Women champions Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje, the prospect of not punching their ticket for the Final Eight in Istanbul is simply unthinkable.
Heading into their do-or-die Round 2 decider against Nadezhda, Sporting Director Steve Costalas has underlined just what the competition means to the Moscow club.
"It's impossible for us to even imagine not making it to the prom," admitted Costalas.
"For six straight seasons, Sparta&K has worked hard and sometimes against all odds, like after the death of Shabtai (Von Kalmanovich), has still reached the Finals and of course has also won it four times."
Not that Costalas believes his club has a divine right to progress. Indeed he is acutely aware that the mighty have fallen on their sword many times before and whatever happens against their domestic rivals, he's adamant Sparta&K will roll with the punches.
"Throughout the years there have been great teams which for many reasons, some beyond their control, have failed to reach the Finals," he said.
"But, if they really were great, they survived and came back."
Like everybody else, Costalas is anticipating a monumental match-up although he is confident experience will be the deciding factor in ensuring Sparta&K will prevail.
"In the first minute of the first game, our players played their game and did not give our opponents the chance to get into the game.
"In contrast during the second game, factors beyond their control in combination with a hungry Nadezhda team, didn't allow them to control the tempo of the game.
"Whoever is hungrier and more focused will be the team which will travel to Istanbul," he predicts.
|Seimone Augustus has been in phenomenal form for Sparta&K, scoring 30 points in the first game of the series and 28 in the second|
"What also will count is the experience of being in this predicament and that is why I believe Sparta&K will be in the inaugural EuroLeague Women Final Eight."
Whoever emerges victorious, Costalas is at least thankful that the longstanding tradition of Russian teams performing well in European competitions will be upheld.
For not only have Russian teams excelled in EuroLeague Women, but also either Dynamo Kursk or Chevakata will contest this year's EuroCup Women Final.
"There always were four dominant Russian teams in the European scene. They were Sparta&K, UMMC Ekaterinburg, Samara (later CSKA) and Dynamo Moscow," explained Costalas.
"Due to some unexpected internal problems we had CSKA fold and Dynamo (hopefully temporarily) weaken.
"But, in less than a couple of years and thanks to sound management and planning, there still are four high level teams in Sparta&K, Ekaterinburg, Nadezhda and Dynamo Kursk with Vologda (Chevakata) also now on our collective heels.
"It's actually great to have competition because it helps all of us to improve and stay competitive."
As for Nadezhda, they have a great opportunity lying in wait after bouncing back from a 93-79 game one loss on the road with a vibrant 87-75 success in game two in Orenburg last Friday.
But they know they will not only hve to perform to their best level, but also have to overcome the champion spirit of an opponent which has become synonymous with the competition itself.
SEASON SO FAR
• Sparta&K topped Group C with an impressive eleven wins and three losses. Since being defeated way back in October of last year by Wisla Can-Pack in their first home game of the season, they have remained undefeated in Moscow. In terms of the Russian League, they are the current leaders.
• Nadezhda finished third in Group B with seven wins and five losses. Domestically they are fourth in the standings with an 11-4 record.
|Elena Danilochkina has been relatively quiet so far. Is the Russian shooting guard due a great performance for Nadezhda?|
THE HOT HANDS
• There's just no stopping Seimone Augustus this season, she has been terrific for Sparta&K. She continues to lead the team in scoring but also does the hard work and that was highlighted by her double-double of 30 points and 11 rebounds in game one. She followed that up with 28 points during the defeat in Orenburg and indeed has averaged 20 points per game across the last three games. Candice Dupree has also had an excellent year and should be the big danger for the hosts.
• Katie Douglas brings a wealth of experience to Nadezhda but she is also in the groove right now and just like Augustus, has averaged 20 points per game across the last three games. She poured in 27 points during the game two win. Rebekkah Brunson is also in good post-season form, scoring 46 points and pulling down 17 rebounds during the first two games.
• Sparta&K have shot the ball so well this season from outside and have really went off in spectacular fashion from downtown in a number of big games. It will be interesting to see how Nadezhda try to counteract this and how the home team cope if they have an off night from the arc.
• During the first two games, Dupree and Augustus took around 55% of the shots for Sparta&K which is an interesting number perhaps magnified by the loss of Jelena Milovanovic which probably would have previously diluted that number. So, you wonder whether Nadezhda might pour even more defensive effort into shackling these two players and try forcing others to step up for Sparta&K.
• During game one, Sparta&K were outstanding on the glass and this time around on the road, Nadezhda must be more aggressive and can't afford another gulf in the respective rebounding performances.
• Nadezhda came up with six big stops during game two by way of six blocked shots. This was in stark contrast to Sparta&K who didn't muster any and a replication of this could prove a decisive factor.
Whoever Pokey Chatman picks to guard Elena Danilochkina will have a pivotal role to play.
The EuroBasket Women 2011 MVP has been relatively quiet in the last month or two and if she is locked down for just one more game, this could be the difference.
However on the flip-side, she's due a really big performance and ‘Golden Hand' could be the player to tilt the balance in the favour of Nadezhda if she gets hot.