By Paul Nilsen
Rivas Ecopolis are hoping an injury ridden season won't prove costly as they prepare to enter EuroLeague Women crunch time.
They entertain rivals Basket Lattes Montpellier Agglomeration, who are locked on the same 5-5 record in Group C, looking to halt a three-game losing streak.
While the calendar year may have changed for Rivas, an inability to declare a clean bill of health certainly hasn't.
"Despite all the setbacks we've had with injuries, we are still doing fairly good," declared an upbeat Anna Cruz.
"We have found our style and although sometimes we have some ups and downs, we are winning the games we need to.
"We had some unexpected wins and some unexpected defeats.
"I think it all comes down to defence, intensity and planning the games - basing our plans on our opponents.
"We know we can beat anyone and now we must not let go the games we have to win," the Spanish international added.
The winter break probably couldn't have come quick enough for head coach Miguel Méndez who is also trying to be positive - even if it would be easier to do so with a full roster to choose from.
"We're still meeting the expectations we had coming into the season," explained the play-caller.
"Being able to be near to the leaders in the standings and playing great basketball in many games due mainly to the effort from the players.
"As we had so many problems with injuries, some players accumulated many minutes, which has made us a bit irregular at times and sometimes even in the same game.
"But, due to that effort, we've completed a first leg of the season doing what we think we should do.
"We're ambitious, anyway, and I have to think that we could've been even better.
"Our first task is to recover all of our players," continued Mendez.
"We need the contribution of everyone on the team, and because of that all I ask for the new year is health - it all comes down to that.
"My concern is at the point-guard position, where all our three players are suffering some problems.
"We need Elisa (Aguilar) to be able to play, we need Clara (Bermejo) to withstand the pain on her torn meniscus.
"We have now completed our inside game, which was a bit damaged. Asjha Jones and Laura Nichols had to take many minutes, and now we've gotten more help.
|"The remaining games in the competition are like finals and we have to win whatever it takes," says Rivas guard Anna Cruz |
On a positive note, the club has described the recovery of Amaya Valdemoro from her double wrist fracture as a ‘miracle'. The intensive work and positive approach of the veteran Spanish star means she will finally be removed from the official injury list this week - even if she is unlikely to feature until early February.
Meanwhile Essence Carson will be back on the floor having missed the previous game due to a complicated visa wrangle and of course the exciting Tijana Krivacevic has been drafted in from Sopron.
Having been absent when Rivas secured a 77-68 success in France under the watchful eye of assistant Nacho Martinez, Mendez is aware of the importance of the reverse game - even if he isn't convinced it's a ‘must-win' encounter with Cras Basket Taranto and Gospic CO potentially waiting to pounce.
"Well, even losing against BLMA means we'd still have options to advance to the next round but it's true that winning games at home is essential in EuroLeague Women.
"Getting these next wins means we could even have home court advantage in the next round and so we still have it on our hands.
"Once the game begins, there will more keys and we need to set the pace of the game, to have our new players more used to our schemes and providing more that what they've been able to do so far.
"It's an important game for BLMA as well and they will play at their best."
The Rivas players are also expecting a tough game with Cruz admitting it will be difficult but everyone must now prepare for each and every game as if it was a final.
Cruz says: "BLMA have such a complete team with a strong and physical backcourt. Their wing players play so hard, but then again, that's what we're facing in every EuroLeague Women game.
"Their game on paper doesn't suit our capabilities - we're not that strong. So, we'll have to find our own way to cover that within our game.
"From now on, all of our games in the competition are finals - especially at home. We have to win these games whatever it takes.
"And, I also mean not only the game against BLMA but the game against Wisla and also our game away at Brno.
"These are highly important games we should win!"
Season So Far: There's not much between both teams who sit in fourth and fifth spot respectively in Group C with a 5-5 record. Rivas Ecopolis have lost their last three games while BLMA have lost three of their last four games. Domestically, BLMA are riding high in the French league and joint leaders with a 12-3 record in contrast to Rivas who slumped to another loss in the Liga Femenina at the weekend with a hugely disappointing 79-65 defeat at Cadi La Seu D'Urgell leaving them in a three-way tie for third place in the standings with a 9-4 record.
The Hot Hands: Asjha Jones continues to be the reference player for Rivas with the experienced frontcourt star almost averaging a season double-double. She has harvested 18 points and 9.2 rebounds per game so far and only once failed to make it into double digits. Having signed the hugely talented Tijana Krivacevic, the 21-year-old will be expected to continue her great progress in the tournament.
BLMA has the hottest property in EuroLeague Women so far this season in the form of Stephany Skrba who has been on fire all season long. She leads the tournament with a sensational field goal percentage of 67.1 having made a stunning 57 of 82 shots while also averaging 7.3 rebounds per game. Ana Lelas has been her typical all-action and influential self while veteran guard Edwige Lawson is also shooting the ball well, in addition to an impressive 5.2 assists per game. Gaelle Skrela has set the tone defensively with a super 2.6 steals per game.
The ‘X Factors': Quite simply, BLMA shot the ball fantastically well during the first part of the season. They have the second best overall shooting percentage and are also the second most dangerous team from downtown in the tournament. They have a lot of experience and their shot selection has been crucial. Rivas will probably have to play this game really tight defensively and make BLMA put the ball on the floor. Rivas don't pose a big three-point threat and this means defensively BLMA may be tempted to sit in the paint and focus on smothering Jones who is doing most of the work for the Spanish team although the addition of Krivacevic is likely to change this dynamic significantly. So, with Rivas not 100% fit in the backcourt, perhaps they can expect some really aggressive ball pressure instead but only Valery Demory has the answer to this ahead of the big tip-off.
Key Match-Up: Kirsten Mann and Stephany Skrba going up against Rivas Asjha Jones, Laura Nicholls and Tijana Krivacevic should be a great battle in the paint.