|Lenka Soukalová and the Czech Republic are looking to extend their winning streak against Italy and make their first final since 2006|
By Dan Casey
Italy upset Russia with a fantastic performance in Friday's quarter-final at the U16 European Championship Women. Now they are dreaming of a place on the podium. In their way - the impressive Czech team.
The Czech Republic have bounced back from their opening-night defeat to France with six successive victories, including a 57-52 win over Italy in a feisty second round match behind Julia Reisingerova's double-double.
Italian coach Giovanni Lucchesi managed to slow down the Russian forwards in the quarter-final victory, and he knows that his team face another tough challenge against the Czech team: "We saw in the game against Russia, it's not enough to concentrate hard for 30-35 minutes - we must be at full focus for the entire game. The Czech team in particular play with a strong intensity, we saw this already, so we need to be ready to battle against them."
Reisingerova is the stand-out figure in a well-balanced group and averages 11.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, showing power inside and a nice ability to step outside and knock down a free-throw line jumper.
This gives the 1.93m center the freedom then to distribute from the high post also, with Tereza Sipova often profiting from hard cuts to the basket. Sipova and Lenka Soukalova provide great energy for the team, averaging 11.4 rebounds and 5.1 steals per game between them, with Michaela Gaislerova providing good back-up.
In the backcourt Petra Holesinska has displayed an ability to make crucial shots from long-range and is joined by point guards Michaela Matuskova and Karolina Maleckova who help to run a smooth offense. Karolina Fadrhonsova has also provided great energy for the team off the bench.
The Czech offense will be tough to contain, with Reisingerova and company grabbing nearly 20 offensive rebounds per game so far in the tournament. But turnovers have been a problem all tournament, with 24 coming in the earlier match against Italy, who have led the competition so far in forcing steals.
The backcourt pair for Italy, Rachele Porcu and Mariella Santucci, each average at least three steals per game, and they have scored a number of crucial baskets as Italy have advanced through the tournament. Giulia Ciaverella has provided useful minutes off the bench running the offense too, though they will miss the injured Giulia Zecchin.
Leading scorer Francesca Pan averages 2.7 steals per game herself to go along with her 13.9 points per game, and she helps her team to protect the paint too with 1.3 blocks per game. Lucrezia Costa and Jasmine Keys have been the most consistent performers for coach Lucchesi up-front, averaging 13.3 rebounds per game between them, while the impressive form of 14-year-old 1.90m center Lorela Cubaj gives Italy another option in the middle.
Czech coach Richard Fousek knows his team will need to work hard to reach the final: "They are a fast, aggressive team with some exceptional players. They have a clever coach who likes to change his defensive systems."
The teams know each other well after their earlier meeting. The stakes are higher now, and both teams will be giving their all in what should be a late-night thriller in Albena on Saturday.