Paul Nilsen is a freelance basketball journalist writing for various websites and publications across Europe.
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The winter-break now but a distant memory, EuroLeague Women barely skipped a beat as it returned to register its first action of a new calendar year.
Ignoring a number of one-sided affairs, another overriding theme of this intro to 2012 was debuts and returns.
Due to her strong association with arch rivals Sparta&k Moscow Region Vidnoje, seeing Bird in an Ekat vest will certainly take some getting used to and a few weeks to sink in. Certainly far more so than when Diana Taurasi switched Fener colours for the red of Galatasaray!
|Sue Bird is back, having traded the colours of Sparta&K M. R. Vidnoje for the UMMC Ekaterinburg orange|
While Bird didn't shoot the ball too well, that was probably only to be expected after such a lengthy lay-off. But, there is little doubt her world class playmaking skills and priceless experience will be a big factor heading down the season stretch for the Russian powerhouse.
On the topic of shooting, Moore slotted into her new team in the two spot and perhaps in time, she can fill the need for Ros Casares to have a more permanent and reliable outside threat. Her quickness will also be a real asset and following her progress in coming weeks should be great fun.
Of course there was also a debut of sorts for Roberto Íñiguez who took the head coaching reins of the Valencia club and grabbed a super debut win in Prague as Ros avenged their home loss to the Czech Republic champions earlier in the campaign.
In the same game, Lindsay Whalen finally tasted court-time this season with a measured 30 minute performance for the hosts as she made her return from injury. Her return had meant the departure of stand-in Ticha Penicherio during the winter break and the point guard resurfaced in Istanbul where she dished up four assists and grabbed three steals for Galatasaray Medical Park.
There were a few other debutantes during the first round of action in 2012 including Tijana Krivacevic and Sandra Pirsic who stepped out for Rivas Ecopolis in Madrid and both celebrated winning debuts albeit playing limited minutes in the victory against BLMA.
There was less joy for Lizanne Murphy who toiled in her first game in the tournament with winless Tarbes whose rotten run continued although there is surely more to come from the Canadian national team player.
One marquee EuroLeague Women player who could soon be stepping back out in the competition is Agnieszka Bibrzycka. The Polish star is rumoured to be potentially joining CCC Polkowice for the remainder of the season although the gossip has suggested Perfumerias Avenida may have expressed an interest also.
French Frontcourt Deepens
One of the best sights of the season so far was most definitely Emmeline Ndongue returning to action for Bourges after the serious injury she sustained last summer which cut her EuroBasket Women campaign short.
I remember her vividly from the final stages in Lodz sat on the bench holding her crutches but this week that memory was replaced with a EuroLeague Women return which is great for Bourges and for French basketball.
Meanwhile I have been a big fan of Ana Cata-Chitiga for some time now and she is really beginning to give France head coach Pierre Vincent something to think about during the next few months as the preparation for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament begins.
She is continuing to develop with Tarbes despite their poor campaign and her season high of 18 points from seven of eight floor shooting against Perfumerias Avenida was a great way to start the year.
Coach Vincent has an embarrassment of riches to choose from in the frontcourt and unfortunately for Cata-Chitiga, she probably has Isabelle Yacoubou, Sandrine Gruda (vote for her as Player of the Year here), Endene Miyem and Emmeline Ndongue all ahead of her in the queue with fellow prospect Diandra Tchatchouang also pushing hard alongside her.
But, all she can do is keep showing this kind of terrific form and give the national team boss the kind of headache a coach doesn't mind.
If you're a French fan meanwhile, you just have to love this intensity of competition for places under the hoop.
Nine Is Just Fine For Penny-less Fener
|Elina Babkina seems to have found her groove for Fenerbahce after a bumpy start in the Turkish metropolis|
Even without the influential and injured Penny Taylor, Fenerbahce picked up where they left off in 2011 and extended their winning streak this season to nine games while simultaneously preserving their status as the only club undefeated in the competition.
However beneath the headlines, I thought there was a really interesting sub-plot involving Elina Babkina. The guard has struggled since she arrived in Istanbul last summer and went into this game under pressure having missed a confidence shattering eleven successive field goal attempts.
So, I was thrilled when she got the first basket of the game to break her barren spell in a heartbeat and then pushed on to finish with double digits by the time the final buzzer had sounded. While I fully appreciate it still wasn't her greatest shooting night, I thought it was nevertheless a solid enough and morale-boosting start to the new calendar year.
I also understand Babkina seems to have more doubters then believers from the people I have spoken to which is maybe why Cappie Pondexter is on her way. However, I really do feel Babkina can succeed and eventually develop into an elite guard even if convincing others of this will be tough.
Unfortunately patience is a virtue which is sadly discarded like a piece of trash all too often in modern day basketball by people who want success delivered yesterday.
Finally, I wonder if Fener can get through until 25th February 2012 which is the anniversary of their last loss when they were beaten by Sparta&K Moscow Region Vidnoje.
If Ivana Matovic continues to produce the kind of exceptional performance she did in Sopron, you wouldn't bet against this.
More Good News For The Angels
With recognition of their efforts being highlighted during the winter break by way of Stefan Svitek being appointed head coach of EuroBasket Women 2015 hosts Hungary, executive director Ivan Benninghaus added to the current feel-good factor by announcing Zuzana Žirková as being potentially ready to join the team for the play-offs.
This is superb news for all fans of the women's game and there is a little bit of added motivation for Zirkova who is in the latter stages of rehab after tearing knee ligaments.
Not only will she be desperate to both just get back onto the floor and fire her team towards Final Eight but she is also nine assists away from moving into joint sixth place with Audrey Sauret-Gillespie in the EuroLeague Women all-time list.
In the same game, Eva Viteckova (vote for her as Player of the Year here) took full advantage of Maria Stepanova (vote for her as Player of the Year here) not playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Kaunas to score 17 points which drew her level fourth with Stepanova in the list of all-time best scorers.
Congratulations are also due to Anna Vajda and Allison Feaster-Strong of Perfumerias Avenida who both grabbed the scores they needed in the win at Tarbes GB to reach the landmark of having racked up 1,000 points in EuroLeague Women.
Meanwhile watch out for Nevriye Yilmaz (vote for her as Player of the Year here) in coming games who is now only eight rebounds away from the magical 600 mark in EuroLeague Women and when she inevitably gets there, will join an exclusive club with just 16 other members.
PAULBALL WEEK 11 PICKS
Performance Of The Week: In a round where most results went according to plan and there were few shocks, the most impressive victory was probably Ros Casares coming from behind to win on the road at USK Prague.
The Crucial Cameo: Sancho Lyttle was arguably the star performer for Ros Casares but frontcourt partner Isabelle Yacoubou weighed in with an excellent cameo of 6 from 8 on her way to 14 points,
Rising Star Watch: Mante Kvederaviciute had a very respectable 6 points in 11 minutes from three of four field goal attempts for VICI Aistes against Ekat. A number of players managed more court time than ever before in their young careers. Leading the way was Magdelena Zietara who played a career high 34 minutes for Lotos Gdynia at Bourges. Fanni Szabo and Zsofia Licskai of Uniqa-Euroleasing Sopron played 20 and 21 minutes respectively against Fenerbahce while Barbora Kasparkova played 13 minutes for Frisco Brno.
Stats Don' Lie: Sparta&K Moscow Region Vidnoje star Candice Dupree posted another fantastic display making nine of her first ten shots in the game at Gospic CO as she finished with 24 points. In the same contest, the hosts chose a bad time to have their worst shooting night of the season, barely scraping past 30% from the floor with the usually reliable Sandra Mandir and Kalisha Keane going a combined 3 of 22. Frisco Brno only used a six player rotation against Wisla Can-Pack, the shortest of any team this season. Paulina Pawlak has now gone 181 minutes in EuroLeague Women without attempting a free-throw.