UMMC Ekaterinburg put an exclamation point on another terrific season by successfully defending their Russian Superleague Women title.
Ekat did it with style, too, by sweeping their rivals Spartak Moscow Region in the finals.
If UMMC had a bitter taste in its mouth from a third straight loss to Spartak at the EuroLeague Women Final Four, it was gone by the time the club's players packed their bags and headed for vacations or to their off-season jobs in America with WNBA clubs.
|With Diana Taurasi moving from Spartak Moscow Region to Fenerbahce, Ekaterinburg may be better positioned to take home a EuroLeague Women title in 2011.|
Many of the game's greats have played for Ekaterinburg and will continue to do so in the seasons to come.
There have been world champions like Penny Taylor and Kristi Harrower of Australia, European champions like Celine Dumerc and Sandrine Gruda of France, a Polish great Agnieszka Bibrzycka, Olympic champions like Cappie Pondexter and Candace Parker.
Maybe the most important signing of the club over the years has been Maria Stepanova, who for a very long time has been the face of Russian women's basketball.
Stepanova, a three-time FIBA Europe Women's Player of the Year, was on the books of CSKA Moscow late in 2008 when UMMC snapped her up.
Since joining the team in the Urals, the club has won a couple of Russian Cups and Russian titles.
At 31 years of age, Stepanova is in her prime and determined to take her game, and that of UMMC Ekaterinburg, to a new level.
She gave this interview to Jeff Taylor of Basketball World News for FIBA Europe.
Maria, congratulations on another title-winning season. Was this year sweeter than last since Ekaterinburg had so much pressure but still won the Russian Cup and the Russian Superleague Women?
Stepanova: Thanks for the congratulations. I cannot compare the seasons because they were absolutely different for me personally, and for the team. There's no such thing as similar seasons. Last season was a period of change for me, since I left one club for another. This season, I felt much more comfortable and easy because I didn't change clubs, didn't feel any pressure in this connection, and was able to keep my mind on concrete objectives. We had to defend our champions' title this season, and this is always more complicated than to become champs, since one can once win by chance. That's why it was a big challenge to win the Cup and Championship of Russia this season - but we've done it. The only thing I'm sorry about is that we failed to win the EuroLeague.
Do you see the Russian Superleague Women and the EuroLeague Women being as competitive as ever? Following on from that question, UMMC will again be among the favorites to win the European title. Do you have a prediction?
Stepanova: Certainly, there are teams in the EuroLeague who deserve to be there, teams that are leaders of their own countries; there are no weak opponents here. Every team can be a surprise. However, in the Russian Championship there are strong teams, which can offer leaders a true battle. For instance, in the semi-final we managed to lose one match to Nadezhda Orenburg. But, generally speaking, our main rivals both in the EuroLeague and Championship of Russia, undoubtedly, was Spartak. I don't know for certain what the composition of other EuroLeague 2011 teams and participants will be, but I think that all the favorites will remain as before, without any profound changes. Next season, the composition of the UMMC will be practically unchanged, so we'll enter as the favorites of EuroLeague and contend only for gold.
If you could make changes to the competitions, what would they be and why?
Stepanova: Probably it's worth cancelling in the EuroLeague Regulations the article which allows to artificially bring together teams from the same country at play-off stages in order to avoid a one-country final. Of course, players will in any case hit the court and protect the colors of their team. I believe sport must be first of all ruled by the sports principles, rather than any others. To my mind, it would have been more interesting for spectators to watch a EuroLeague Final between UMMC and Spartak than to observe these teams oppose each other in the semi-final. As for the Russian Championship, I'd reduce the final series. I think in women's basketball a ‘best-of-three' would be enough. Because it's too hard to play a difficult season, and then to fight in the best-of-five final. This year, we've managed to win the final series against Spartak 3-0 and it took us only three games. But I cannot even imagine the way the players could have looked in the last game if they had had to play all five of them.
Going back to the EuroLeague Women Final Four, how did UMMC rebound from the disappointment and come back so strong in the Russian play-offs?
Stepanova: Yes, we were eager to win the EuroLeague this year but unfortunately succumbed to Spartak in the semi-final. It was extremely important for us to win this game, but it happened differently. We were very sore over our defeat, and it took us some time to recover. The following games showed that it was hard for us to gain strength. We even managed to lose the first game of the play-off semi-final series against Nadezhda. For that reason, we came into the final battle against Spartak strong, motivated and aggressive in a good sense.
Maria, how have you managed to become such an influential person in women's basketball and to find so much success?
Stepanova: I don't even know, probably the cause is to be sought in my temper. I always tried to convince the coach and myself that I'm as good as other players. Starting from the sports school I went to (Olympiad), I was ready to put my best foot forward to prove to the coach and everybody that I was the best.
How did you respond to criticism, especially as a youngster?
Stepanova: Being criticized, some players give up, but it gets me going and rushes me off my feet. Criticism for me is like a red rag to a bull. I am constantly displeased with myself. I want to become better, to progress. The sky is the limit for me. There's definitely room for improvement. I believe that I can do much more.
Of course some of Maria Stepanova's finest moments have come in the Russia national team shirt, and this is another big year for you and Russia with the FIBA World Championship in the Czech Republic. Can we expect Russia to once again be among the leading teams?
Stepanova: I should say our national team is unpredictable. I hesitate to make any predictions about the World Championship in the Czech Republic. We are always slow at the beginning, losing in the preliminary stage, but then if things shape up in our favor, we, as a rule, get into the final. Now, there have been some changes in our team. Experienced players Oxana Rakhmatulina and Natalia Vodopyanova left the team's composition. Through injury, Tatiana Shchegoleva had no game practice this season and Olga Arteshina played very little. Naturally, it will have an impact on the team's play. However, all our players are ambitious, and in any case, we'll fight for medals, and we'll see, what value they would be... I don't know, whether we'll be able to repeat the last tournament's achievement in Brazil and outplay the Americans, but we have time for training.
Can we expect your son, Nikolai, to be dribbling basketballs one day in Russia?
Stepanova: Now my husband and I are want our son to try different kinds of sport. He has already played hockey and this year he has been trying tennis. It's too early to make a guess about him, but most likely he will not play an individual sport and we'll try to send him to a team sport.