By Jeff Taylor
When it comes to women's basketball in European competitions, Greek teams are not usually in the title hunt at this stage of the season.
Sony Athinaikos, however, are within touching distance of the EuroCup Women Final after last week's 64-58 win at Dynamo Kursk in the first leg of their last-four tie.
The reality, and this is something that Kursk coach Algirdas Paulauskas and Athinaikos boss George Dikeoulakos both know, is that it's half-time in an intriguing battle.
"I think that for my team, the most difficult part is right now playing on our court and not when we played in Kursk," Dikeoulakos said to Basketball World News.
|George Dikeoulakos has coached his team to within touching distance of the EuroCup Women finals.|
"It needs experience to manage all these emotions, playing in front of your fans who are expecting something that no other Greek team has ever achieved.
"We must never forget that Dynamo Kursk is a very good team, with a very good coach and very good players.
"We have to understand that in order to win the game again, we have to be very concentrated and hungry, exactly as we were in Kursk.
"We also have to understand that as we won there by six, at the same way they can beat us by six or more if we don't do certain things in the game.
"So the biggest challenge for me right now is to bring our minds back to our heads and not to the sky."
The Video ‘Wise Man'
Dikeoulakos expects Paulauskas to have some tricks up his sleeve when he travels to Athens for Thursday's second leg.
A good coach will make adjustments, and the Lithuanian coach has no doubt looked at video replays of the game to confirm the areas his team must address.
Likewise, the Athinaikos boss will anticipate a different approach from Kursk and come up with some changes of his own to counter.
"Both teams will try some tricks, I 'm sure of that," Dikeoulakos said.
"But I have a lot of respect for coach Paulauskas and I know that immediately, he'll find solutions and so will we. My team does strictly play by the book, or by the plan, but we also expect many different situations in the game in which we are always ready to stand up and go to Plan B."
There is no better way to analyze an opponent than to watch replays of a first leg and that is something that the Greek team's coach and players will have done a lot by the opening tip of the second leg.
"Watching the video of the game is like having a wise man telling you what you as a coach or as a team did wrong or did well," said Dikeoulakos, who by Monday had looked at the game tape seven times.
"First, it's me that is trying to know what we have to improve or change in our game, and then my players watch some of their mistakes.
"I believe that on this level, all teams are equal, and the team that is doing the details better will have some advantages more than the others."
There is minutia to cover, and the mindset has to be right.
Some coaches will tell their players to forget that the first leg was ever played and to only concentrate on the 40 minutes of action that is coming up.
The magnitude of what Athinaikos is trying to achieve, to become the first Greek team to reach a women's European final, cannot be a burden.
Municipal Targoviste had an 18-point lead after the first leg of their Quarter-Final against Kursk but couldn't put them away.
So while it may be tempting for Athinaikos to think about the EuroCup Women Final, it's dangerous to do so.
"The truth is that up to a point, a coach must also be a psychologist for his team," Dikeoulakos said.
"It's the only sport in the world which, depending on your psychology, the target (the basket) changes.
"Sometimes it (the rim's circumference) seems so small, and sometimes it seems so big. So the only solution is to stop thinking about the Final and the big goal, and to think how we'll achieve other smaller but very important goals, like how we'll play defense on this player, how we'll adjust on a certain type of defense, etc.
"Because if we don't achieve these small goals, then there is no big goal."
Injuries are a part of the game and thankfully for the Greeks, there are no serious ones heading into the second leg.
They have had some knocks during the year, yet the strength of the squad has helped it remain on course.
"We had so many injuries, but all the players on the roster proved that they are always ready to win against any opponent, and that's why we reached this Semi-Final with the best record of all the teams," the coach said.
It's safe to say that everything has gone according to plan for Athinaikos in the EuroCup Women so far.
"Our plan was very simple," Dikeoulakos said.
"First of all, the girls each had to make a conscious effort to be a team. I placed individual responsibility on each player.
"I told them that the construction of the first step, which was to be a team, was on them and if they did not build that first step, then we would not achieve anything.
"The second thing was to try to surpass ourselves in every practice, in every game.
"It was like going to the bank every day to deposit cash, and at the end of the season we'll get it back with interest.
"So everything has gone according to the plan so far."