From Dan Darby, PA Sport, Samara
CSKA Volgaburmash's return to the Final Four could not have come at a better time, according to Maria Stepanova.
Not only did they clinch their place in the competition's showpiece event on her birthday, February 23, by winning Game Two of their quarter-final tie at MKB Euroleasing, 75-63.
They also accomplished the feat on Defender's Day, a public holiday when Russians congratulate and reward those men who serve or served in the Russian army.
||It's a great present for our male fans!
"Of course the win in Hungary has come at a very good time - February 23," Stepanova said on the club's official website, www.basketclubvbm.ru.
"It's a great present for our male fans!"
As for her birthday, Stepanova added: "Of course the girls didn't forget. To be honest, I am absolutely thrilled. My team has won and reached the deciding stage of the EuroLeague, so for me that is an excellent present! But there were other presents, too. I was absolutely swamped with flowers!"
"I am very thankful to all the girls," said Stepanova, FIBA Europe's 2006 Women's Player of the Year.
"We showed our best qualities and won a very difficult game."
Looking back on the game, Stepanova said it was her sides ability to land early blows that made the difference.
They built a 25-12 lead by the end of the first quarter.
"The officials allowed the teams to play out a very physical match," Stepanova said.
"Nobody wanted to lose, which made for a highly charged game and without a doubt, the first quarter was very decisive.
"We took the lead and that gave us a psychological advantage. But the Hungarians had the crowd on their side, who were desperately cheering on MKB Euroleasing.
"So it was a hard-fought victory. I am just happy, that we are once more in the Final Four and have a chance of winning the EuroLeague Women."
Stepanova revealed that not too many people in the CSKA camp expected fellow Russian outfit Spartak Moscow Region to advance after the team's 73-58 home defeat against Gambrinus.
But Spartak hit back with a vengeance in Brno, winning Game Two, 81 63.
"Spartak Moscow region was a real surprise," Stepanova said.
"Before the quarter-finals started, we had a sweep on who would go through.
"Only two people thought Spartak would win - Amaya Valdemoro and the doctor, Anatoly Kalabin.
"Amaya said it would be a slight victory, but Anatoly said they'd win by 20 points!
"So, it looks like he's getting his hands on the prize money!"
French giants Bourges also reached the Final Four after sweeping Teo Vilnius in two games.
"With the other games, we were counting on Bourges getting through," Stepanova said.
"We played against them in the group stage and we claimed the top two spots."
Gambrinus and Spartak is not the only quarter-final tie that has yet to be decided.
Ros Casares, one of the pre-tournament favourites, must win at Fenerbahce to advance to the Final Four.
"I cannot pick a favourite between Ros Casares and Fenerbahce, simply because I do not know much about the second of the two," Stepanova said.