|10 August 2014|
|Julia Reisingerová will have to rise above the challenge for the Czech Republic|
Star centers Maria Vadeeva and Julia Reisingerová collide in Sunday's U16 European Championship Women final in Debrecen. Who will celebrate glorious gold, and who will settle for silver?
Spain may have been the undisputed masters at this level for the last decade, claiming eight of the last 10 gold medals. The Czech Republic couldn't stop them in the 2013 final in Albena, Bulgaria, but Russia beat the Spanish team twice this year, and Russia was the last non-Spanish nation to celebrate U16 gold, beating Croatia in the 2010 final in Kozani, Greece.
The Russian women's programme already knows that golden feeling in 2014 too, having beaten France in the U18 European Championship Women final in Matosinhos, Portugal.
The Czech Republic, on the other hand, are chasing their first ever gold medal at this level, and indeed their first at any level since winning the 2002 European Championship for Young Women (now known as the U20 European Championship Women) in Zagreb, Croatia.
Eva Vitecková, now a prominent member of EuroLeague Women club ZVVZ USK Prague, was the top scorer that day, tallying 17 points as the Czech team celebrated a glorious victory. Their opponents that day?
Russia. Could that result prove to be a happy omen?
The two teams have reached the final with flawless records, beating allcomers to stamp their authority on the tournament.
While the Czech team have been impressive, Russia go into the gold medal game as the favourites. Belgium's head coach Pierre Cornia described them as "the best team I've seen in four years coaching at this level" after their quarter-final drubbing, and Czech Republic's head coach Richard Fousek has his work cut out trying to find holes in Russia's deep squad.
But don't count the Czech team out by any means. They've exhibited tough defence throughout the tournament and shown great determination and grit to outlast some feisty opponents. Russia's margins of victory may appear to be more gaudy, but it might be the case that the lack of a real test leaves them unprepared for when the going gets tough.
Reisingerová, Michaela Krejzová and Lucie Hosková will also have the pain of last year's final defeat to serve as motivation to go one step better this year - although Vadeeva, Raisa Musina, Daria Kurilchuk, Alina Bespaltseva and Tatiana Kazakova were all part of the Russian team which suffered from their own painful experience, losing to Italy in the quarter-finals before dropping the classification game for 5th place to France and missing out on a place at the 2014 U17 World Championship for Women as a result.
Bigs: Reisingerová vs Vadeeva is the headline matchup, with both sure to be on the All-Tournament Team. Vadeeva leads the tournament with 18ppg, 16.4rpg and 30 blocks over eight games. She pulled down 23 rebounds in both the quarter-final win over Belgium and the semi-final win over Spain. Measuring in at 1.90m, she is a powerful presence around the rim but displays a soft touch, and she is able to frustrate defences with her constant knack of grabbing boards, keeping the ball high and quickly putting in the rebound from almost any angle.
She has shown a great passing touch during this tournament too, and she will be tough for Reisingerová to score on at the other end. But Reisingerová has looked very agile throughout the championship and is quite capable also of mixing it up on the drive and with good distribution skills too.
It would also be grossly unfair to their teammates to characterize this match as a one-on-one showdown. For one thing, Vadeeva's best friend, Raisa Musina, complements her frontcourt partner fantastically, with a bit more range on her shot and an almost-telepathic understanding that can come only from years of playing together.
Russia also have decent size in backups Kazakova and Kseniia Nesterova, who can at the very least soak up some fouls against Reisingerová. These four all measure in at 1.90m-plus, which puts the Czech team at a size disadvantage.
|Czech Republic will need Michaela Krejzová's versatility|
Krejzová and Natálie Stoupalová will likely start for the Czech Republic, with Krejzová listed as a power forward but really playing more often on the wing (as Musina does at times). Krejzová has been the tournament's best shooter from downtown, making 12-27 including 3-5 in the semi-final victory over France. She is a feisty competitor who is always running, and Russia will need to watch her in transition.
Stoupalová also has good range on her shot, and if the Czech team can move the defence around to get open looks, they may be able to throw Russia off their game-plan. 1999 talents Tereza Vitulová and Veronika Sipová will be the main reserves for the Czech team, with Vitulová as the backup center and Sipová as an energetic do-it-all menace, the kind who coaches love to have and hate to face.
Wings: With Coach Fousek employing a shorter rotation than most at this level, Krejzová and Sipová help to balance the line-ups with Hosková being the main wing player. Hosková has averaged eight points and seven rebounds per game, and Russia will need to protect their defensive glass strongly to prevent Hosková and Sipová from flying in and extending possessions.
On the other hand, the Czech defence will be severely tested by Russia's embarrassment of offensive riches. Anna Arkhipova Von Kalmanovich's squad has consistently shown the ability to knock down open shots, and that is with Kurilchuk shooting at a surprisngly low clip (considering she looks as though she'll never miss).
Kurilchuk could get hot, or Kamilla Ogun could be a thorn in Fousek's side. Ogun reads the game wonderfully well, popping up in unlikely places to snare opportunistic rebounds, and finishing strongly around the basket.
Ksenia Sharova and Svetlana Kramar join the party as decent defenders who will knock down shots if left unattended. Alina Bespaltseva dressed but didn't play in the semi-final, but she is another strong player who could provide mismatches.
Guards: Viktoriia Zavialova has run the team very well throughout, and backup Sevara Nuritdinova is a great prospect too, with a high basketball IQ let down by a slight frame. Both average more than three assists per game.
Adéla Neubauerová has been a terrific find for Fousek at the point guard position, with a bit more size, high basketball IQ herself, and some great shooting. Backup Aneta Váchová has struggled to conduct the offence to the same levels, and shooting guard Erika Vitásková joins Váchová and Nuritdinova in struggling to compete physically.
Zavialova struggled with foul trouble in the semi-final and if that repeats itself, the guard who can impose herself most on the game may end up having a large impact on the end result.
The ease with which Russia have handled the rest of the competition plus their plethora of weapons makes them a natural favourite. But the Czech Republic haven't come this far only to settle for silver again, and a classic match awaits the spectators in Debrecen.