By Paul Nilsen
|EuroLeague Women LIVE - Watch the Regular Season Group C clash between Novi Zagreb and ZVVZ USK Prague on FIBA Europe TV, Wednesday at 18:00 CET|
For the Croatian hosts, not having a win after their first two games was perhaps to be expected in their rookie EuroLeague Women season. Even those clubs with a deeper and more talented roster wouldn't have held out much hope of a winning start with big-hitting duo Galatasaray and UMMC Ekaterinburg first on the menu.
It was a baptism of fire for Novi Zagreb and whilst they were like a rabbit caught in the car headlights on debut when blown out at home to Gala, their performance in Ekaterinburg two weeks ago was a real eye-opener. They came closer of a big upset than anybody had anticipated, eventually going down 83-77.
Star guard Sandra Mandir has plenty of experience behind her when it comes to playing at the elite level for both club and country. Having made the switch from Gospic CO during the summer, it's been a case of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire in some ways.
"The season so far has been hard for us" agreed Mandir.
"We have already had two very tough games with opponents who could expect to be in the Final of the tournament!
"During the first game with Galatasaray, we played badly defensively and they wisely punished our mistakes.
"But, in the second game against Ekat, we did play much better and it showed both on the court and in the final result - it was actually very good for us even if we lost!"
Last week, ZVVZ USK Prague also lost to UMMC Ekaterinburg, meaning they moved to zero wins and three losses. And despite both this, and also adapting to life under a new head coach in Natalia Hejkova, Mandir is expecting a very difficult game.
She insisted, "USK Prague are a very good team and I am surprised they have a 0-3 record.
"For them and also for us, it's a very important game and so we must give everything and show our heart whilst on the court if we want to be involved in a close game!
"Playing with real heart makes a big difference on the court and especially since USK Prague are, on paper at least, a better team than their current record, so we will have to see who will take an important first victory."
Coach Hejkova is just thankful that unlike the handful of days she had before the last game against UMMC Ekaterinburg, she has had a little longer with her players heading into the showdown in Zagreb. She has also been honest enough to admit her first priority has been to restore confidence.
"The biggest difference is that my team feels after the game with Ekat that they can play good games because having self-confidence is the right thing for us.
"It's important for us to play good defence, with clear rules, and to play consistently for all of the game - for each of the four quarters."
"There is definitely pressure on both sides since Zagreb play at home with zero wins too"
|Has played for coach Hejkova before: Rebekkah Brunson|
The experienced play-caller is also looking at some positives, including the return of the influential Rebekkah Brunson and a schedule that may look tough now, but will prove potentially kinder during the second half of the campaign - by which time she will have stamped her influence on the players.
"I coached her [Brunson] in Valencia" said Hejkova.
"I know she can help us with her excellent rebounding and one-on-one play.
"We also have to remember that we have four games back to back at home in January."
Form Guide: Novi Zagreb have lost twice so far, at home to Galatasaray and on the road at UMMC Ekaterinburg. Domestically, they are unbeaten and share the lead at the top of the league with Jolly Sibenik, although one of their wins so far required squeezing out an overtime success at Medvescak. USK Prague have lost at home to Perfumerias Avenida, on the road at Galatasaray and at home to Ekat. In the Czech League, they have won 10 of 11 games so far, losing in a big way against BK Imos Brno, although they still sit joint top of the standings with this seasons' surprise package Sokol Hradec Kralove.
The Hot Hands: Sena Pavetic and Matea Vrdoljak have both impressed for Novi Zagreb with Pavetic clinical around the hoop and shooting over 64%, whilst Vrdoljak has posted some all-action displays with 9.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. Kia Vaughn has been the one standout and consistent performer for the visitors with a near season double-double of 14 rebounds and nine rebounds.
‘X Factors': Both teams are shooting the ball in very mediocre fashion from the perimeter, and if one of them can finally deliver an upgrade, then it could make a big difference. Notably Eva Viteckova has only shot the ball four times all season from outside for USK Prague and this is surprising. As is the usually reliable Mandir being 1 of 13 from downtown. The biggest factor however will be Leilani Mitchell joining the hosts since she certainly brings an outside threat and excellent playmaking skills. Finally, Novi Zagreb are going to have to cope with the power of Brunson and Vaughn inside, supplemented by Ilona Burgrova and Jelena Dubljevic and how effectively they handle this kind of rotation under the basket will be key.