Paulball: And Then There Were Eight

22 February 2010

 Paul NilsenPaul Nilsen is a freelance basketball journalist writing for various web-sites and publications across Europe. If you would like to contact Paul you can e-mail him here 

We have arrived at the biggest junction on the long journey towards EuroLeague Women glory with eight teams preparing to fight it out for the four golden tickets that guarantee passage to that all important last weekend of the tournament.

EuroLeague Women Final Four is where everybody wants to be and history has shown that reputation counts for nothing at this all important quarter-final stage. Only performances on the court and getting those two big wins matter now.

One man who certainly knows what it takes to go all of the way is the last coach to win the title and I grabbed Laszlo Ratgeber to get the lowdown as part of my quarter-final previews.

Game 9 - Spartak Moscow Region versus Fenerbahce

Both of these teams met in Group D during the qualifying round and the encounters turned out to be true nightmares for the Turkish champions with the whipping they received in Russia bordering on humiliation at 43 points.

Haydar Kemel Ates will be telling his players they have improved drastically and he is right. Led by Penny Taylor who is always capable of producing world class performances alongside the classy Nevriye Yilmaz and the devastating perimeter game of Nicole Powell, this series is no foregone conclusion.

The influence of Taurasi for Spartak is well noted but the strength and consistency of Sylvia Fowles is perhaps something that has been far too often overlooked. Absolutely solid as anything, you can pretty much write down her numbers now.

With those two leading the way and with the added class and depth of the likes Jekabsone-Zogota and Sue Bird, Fener have a big task in causing an upset. For certain the Turkish club will have to pick up their work on the glass. If they don't rebound more effectively it will be a couple of long nights!

Series X Factor
- Playmaker Birsel Vardarli could be key. Her decision making and the way she handles the ball under pressure will be important. If she can get the ball to Yilmaz, Powell and Taylor in threatening spots then anything is possible. Her defence will also be under scrutiny and tested to the limit in this series.

Player To Watch
- Janel McCarville has enjoyed a super season in just about every facet of her game. Looking at her defensive work and the near 3 steals per game, I beleive the American can be labelled as something of an unsung hero. Not that Coach Chatman and her team-mates don't appreciate the value of their hardworking center!

Ratgeber Verdict
:  "In my opinion, Spartak Moscow Region are the runaway favourites although Fenerbahce are a good team and one with the great traditions. They also have some great players like Penny Taylor. However, I do think my former club will march on to the Final Four."

Nilsen Prediction - 2-0 Spartak Moscow Region

Game 10 Wisla Can-Pack versus Frisco Sika Brno

A friend of mine explained this was the ‘lucky coin' series. Lucky because both clubs have avoided the two Russian teams and Ros Casares while apparently you had might as well throw a coin up in the air to predict the outcome of this series. With two of the most experienced coaches in the tournament going head to head, it will be just as riveting watching their respective moves on the sidelines as it will be watching the action on court!

Dewanna Bonner grabbed the headlines after those two wonderful victories in Madrid by Brno but perhaps it will be Hana Horakova who could be the real danger. Since the injuries to Zhirkova and Kulichova she has found herself more and more in her favourite position on the wing and has exploited this expertly. Once again her shooting performances will be vital. Coach Bobrovsky keeps a tight and effective rotation but if one of his main players is cold, goes down injured or gets into foul trouble, there is arguably a lack of depth and I will be interested to see his Plan B!

For Wisla, I guess the message is to just to keep doing what they have done all year. They are not the greatest shooting team in the world so will probably get zoned and there will be a reliance on moving the ball with Fernandez and Cohen asked to make the killer passes. They have a powerhouse in Burse, a potential game-winner in Castro-Marques, the solidity of Kobryn, depth off the bench in the likes of Zohnova and Majewska and the inspirational Fernandez to rely on. For that reason I am tipping Krakow to prevail.

Series X Factor - The defensive rebounding of Wisla. They have done a phenomenal job in not giving up second chance points to their opponents. As Brno are strong on the offensive glass, this will be a key battle. The emphasis is on the home team to continue taking away second chance opportunities and if they do this, I feel Brno will just come up short offensively.

Player To Watch
- Having spent five seasons playing in Euroleague Women for Wisla Can-Pack, there will be one player with more than a little extra motivation to get to the Final Four. Jelena Skerovic was upset with the decision to cut her and the Polish club will be hoping the guard doesn't return to haunt them. While she hasn't exactly been on fire this season for her new team - what better place to really explode and drop some bombs on her former team?

Ratgeber Verdict
: Wisla Can-Pack have really played very well during the whole of this EuroLeague Women season while Frisco Siko Brno are now playing much better than last season. I have seen a lot of games involving these two teams and once again, Krakow will have the home-court advantage in the series which was of course decisive against Mizo Pecs. However, Brno can win this duel if Zirkova and Kulichova return back to the team!"

Nilsen Prediction - 2-1 Wisla Can-Pack (Can you believe I am arguing with the reigning ELW winning coach?)

Game 11 UMMC Ekaterinburg versus Good Angels Kosice

Good Angels Kosice have been one of the form teams of this competition since their dreadful start and it is easy to dismiss this as a David versus Goliath battle but is this the reality? Stefan Svitek in my opinion is one genuine candidate at this stage for Coach of the Year but  more of that in a future Paulball! Apart from the obvious talent of Candice Dupree and Angel McCoughtry, Svitek has a team that hustles and works harder than any other in ELW. The outstanding aspect of their game has been the hustle all over the floor and ability to get buckets in transition from steals. Unfortunately they have been dealt a blow with news Katarina Hrickova is likely to be out for six months with a broken hand.

Meanwhile co-favourites Ekat just keep squeezing the life out of their opponents and that won't stop - in fact it will only get more intense. They should end the marvellous run of Kosice with relative ease since their superior defence and experience should smother the threat of Dupree and McCoughtry sufficiently to pick up two double-digit wins and get the job done early.

Series X Factor - It has to be the supporting cast of Kosice. The likes of Kupcikova and Musovic have shown their value and highlighted there is more to the Slovakian team than merely Dupree and McCoughtry. However now is the ultimate test against the best defence in ELW and also because Hrickova is likely to be missing too. If Good Angels Kosice are to even compete, then the devastating duo need support again in terms of scoring. If those third and fourth scorers don't materialise then a potential shock will be a non-starter.

Player To Watch
- Agnieszka Bibrzycka has explained how desperately she wants to win EuroLeague Women and with the defence of Ekat not a problem, she will continue to be the player to provide the all important offensive power down the other end of the floor. ‘Biba' has had an excellent season and can you believe that the last game against Galatasaray was the only time she has failed to reach double digits this season? A class performer who has it all and one of the main reasons Ekat are the best perimeter shooting team in the tournament.

Ratgeber Verdict: "For me, this match up probably looks the most one-sided although Good Angels Kosice have had a surprisingly good season but nevertheless you have have to still say that of course,  UMMC Ekaterinburg are huge favourites."

Nilsen Prediction - 2-0 UMMC Ekaterinburg

Game 13 Ros Casares versus Halcon Avenida

I don't think may people would disagree that this is the tie of the round. A superb match-up between both of the two giants of Spanish basketball with both teams having picked up important wins against each other domestically so far this season.

Halcon Avenida have been pretty consistent and in Sancho Lyttle and Le'Coe Willingham have energy, power, scoring and rebounding on tap. The strength of Salamanca remains their depth and also the control of Sylvia Dominguez. The point guard has been excellent and is so controlled in her play and her IQ is a big bonus for her team.

Ros Casares meanwhile will also rely on their superb team ethic, swift ball movement and ability to do everything better than most other teams. Strong in every department at both ends of the floor, they can rely on seasoned winners to get the job done and are a team that could yet upset the big Russian two if they get one of those last four tickets. I think they possibly have just too much for Salamanca - maybe by only one or two percent in most areas of the game.

Series X Factor
-. Alba Torrens the newly crowned Young Player Of The Year. Yes, she brings excitement to the court but Salamanca don't need excitement at this crucial stage, they need production. I love to watch Torrens but in this series she needs to up her numbers. She has shot the ball well enough this season and 11 of 38 from the arc for a player who gets praised to the hilt is a big reality check. She can be the difference if she finds her range.

Player To Watch
- Amaya Valdemoro has slipped right back into the groove since returning from her injury and you get the sense that she could explode for a twenty plus haul in one of these games, particularly with a few more minutes to be dished out after the departure of Hammon. She brings energy and a vibrancy that makes her the heartbeat to go with the irrepressible backbone of this team that is none other than Delisha Milton.

Ratgeber Verdict:  "Everything is stacked in the favour of Ros Casares in this Spanish derby with the exception that Halcon Avenida have already won during the regular season in Valencia and Ros Casares were very lucky to win the Copa Del Reina against the team from Salamanca. It is not only the home court advantage but also the quantity of quality-star players, that favours Valencia to progress to the Final Four in this series."

Nilsen Prediction - 2-1 Ros Casares

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