A Truly Great Final Eight

04.04.2012

PAULBALL

Paul Nilsen

Paul Nilsen is a freelance basketball journalist writing for various websites and publications across Europe.

If you'd like to contact Paul you can e-mail him at paulballnilsen@gmail.com


There's little doubt the historic first EuroLeague Women Final Eight delivered everything it promised and what was a fitting finale to another terrific season of elite women's basketball. Here are my top eight reflections from Istanbul.


A FAVOURABLE FORMAT

Right from the outset I was sure that a change to the Final Eight format was a positive move.

I now feel like my faith in that decision to be bold and try something new has been repaid.

The main reason I was always in favour of a Final Eight was because of the additional motivation it gives during the regular season. More seats at the top table means more to play for, and for a greater number of clubs.

Ivana Matovic (Fenerbahce), Olga Arteshina (UMMC Ekaterinburg)
Ivana Matovic (right) vying with Olga Arteshina in the hard-fought battle for third place between UMMC Ekaterinburg and Fenerbahce

In terms of the Final Eight experience in itself, it felt like an actual tournament rather than a long weekend to finish a season.

It had a ‘big time' feel to it and I just liked it - period. Rivas Ecopolis blew the argument out of the water that this format would favour the deeper teams.

They had fewer resources than most of their rivals and got to within around eight minutes of still having a chance of winning it!

Besides, whenever people make this point I always think of Croatia, shrugging off their injury crisis at the EuroBasket Women last summer and just finding a way to win and overachieve.

Even on Sunday, prior concerns over whether we would have a host of ‘dead rubber' games proved to be unfounded since, instead, we were treated to a string of hard-fought, close and very enjoyable contests as pride ruled supreme.

The battle for third spot between Fenerbahce and UMMC Ekaterinburg was unbelievably intense.

Due to a couple of serious injuries, there were some people out there blaming the tournament format.

Well, I still can't fathom that logic since if this is the case, then there would be much higher incidences of injury at all tournaments including the likes of EuroBasket Women (which would also need to be changed).

I just don't buy that argument whatsoever and besides, players practice hard for three days in a row during the season and will push themselves hard going up against team-mates.

I still see some scope for a shuffle to include maybe a semi-final scenario but one thing is absolutely for sure, it does not matter which way this tournament is shaped in the future, finding a solution to suit everybody is an impossible task.

I do know however that this was a great success and mainly thanks to excellent organisation by hosts Galatasaray Medical Park, supported by the Turkish Federation.


CHAMPIONS ROS LACK PRAISE

Ros Casares found themselves in a bit of a no-win situation during this tournament. With a stacked roster, everyone seemed to be talking about the consequences should they fail, rather than succeed.

And, when they did prevail, few people were generous in their praise because they were of course expected to win. Their own situation was magnified by a team with less resources, in Rivas, making the final.

The EuroLeague Women 2012 Champions Ros Casares
EuroLeague Women 2012 champions Ros Casares have not recieved nearly as much praise as they deserve for their accomplishment

I think just about everyone outside of Valencia was rooting for Rivas but I guess most people like to favour an underdog.

However, I think we shouldn't lose sight of just what it takes to win this tournament. The coaching staff and players deserve the utmost credit and congratulations for not only executing when it mattered, but for dealing with huge pressure and expectation.

Ros General Manager Carme Lluveras also deserves real praise. Having gained herself something of a reputation for being a little ‘trigger happy' in recent times, I made sure I congratulated her after the Final and reiterated that I thought she had made some brave decisions.

As I walked off the court, I looked back and saw her clutching the precious trophy and, whatever you think, she has it for another year and nobody can take that away from her.

Oh and the defence of Ros was absolutely exceptional, so credit to coach Roberto Iniguez and his coaching staff.


FAIRYTALE RIVAS

Well, any good tournament needs something of a fairy-tale element and Rivas provided it, didn't they? They just played smart basketball and they played hard.

They had the outstanding player in MVP Asjha Jones, who was sensational, but they had an unbreakable team spirit and were so mentally strong it was simply incredible at times.

All of them played a part in success and I tip my hat in admiration to the team from just outside the Spanish capital.

I particularly enjoyed Elisa Aguilar rolling back the years and young Laura Nicholls battling in the post and playing some impressively tenacious defence.

10. Elisa Aguilar (Rivas Ecopolis), 15. Anna Cruz (Rivas Ecopolis)
Finalists Rivas Ecopolis, the fairytale team of the tournament, were rewarded for their fantastic collective effort

As for Anna Cruz, well she would be on my EuroLeague Women roster in a heartbeat. What a ‘glue' player she is!

 

YOUNG GUNS GO FOR IT

The weekend was tinged with sadness due to injuries and I wish Maria Stepanova, Chiara Consolini and Penny Taylor a strong recovery from their respective knee problems.

In the case of Stepanova and perhaps Taylor too, the Olympic dream is over and while terribly sad even for a neutral like myself, it was noticeable that as doors begin to close for some players, they open for others.

One of the most redeeming features of this historical first Final Eight was being able to catch an extended glimpse of a host of young players and specifically former FIBA Europe Young Player Of The Year Nika Baric of Slovenia and her Sparta&K team-mate Ksenia Tikhonenko, who could be in that Olympic frontcourt for Russia in 2016. I certainly hope so.

There was also Olcay Cakir, a player who caught my eye from the moment I saw her at U16 European Championship level and it was joyful seeing Fenerbahce head coach George Dikeoulakos start her for the most important game of the club's season.

Similarly, it was nice to see Miriam Foraste get court time for Ros Casares since she has the most difficult job of all, with even senior pros struggling for minutes on that team.

Then, of those players slightly older, it was wonderful to watch the likes of Rivas trio Tijana Krivacevic, Laura Nicholls and Vega Gimeno for example.

The future is bright for women's basketball in Europe, that's for sure, and I left Istanbul feeling so excited about these players establishing themselves as the stars of future EuroLeague Women Finals.


EKAT PUZZLE REMAINS UNSOLVED

The team whom I genuinely feel has the most reason to return home and review their strategy moving forward, is UMMC Ekaterinburg.

Ksenia Tikhonenko    (Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje)
Ksenia Tikhonenko of Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje is one of the young stars who showed in Istanbul that they will shine bright in the near future

Five successive third-place finishes isn't good enough, taking into account the almost incomprehensible levels of resource already burned in their unfruitful attempts to land the title.

This year they had a huge degree of mitigation and I accept this completely. For sure, nobody could have forseen the bad luck that struck down Sue Bird in the first game with her freak nose injury sustained during warm-up. But, there's always something, isn't there?

The quite wonderful Ekaterinburg fans who were outstanding in Istanbul must be tired of hearing the cliché ‘well, there's always next year'.

Winning the EuroLeague Women is as tough as it gets in basketball. But, if you can't even get to the final across five seasons when you have invested as much as any other team in the competition, your strategy is failing.

Cold hard facts begin to bite. Two years in a row, Spanish clubs have reached the final with modest budgets (or at least in the case of Rivas this year) in comparison.

I am no expert and since it would be easy to sit and criticise, I am more than happy to suggest that signing almost unanimously ‘star names' is not necessarily the way forward.

Ekaterinburg are a dream case study for those wanting to explore the notion of ‘can you be too deep?'

Or, ‘can you have too many star names?' If I was ever lucky enough to be the general manager or owner of a EuroLeague Women team with a huge budget, my own strategy would be to work with the coaching staff to try to get a more robust mix of blue and white collar workers.

Controversial footballer Eric Cantona was once famously derided for referring to his team-mate Didier Deschamps as a 'water-carrier', but he was so perceptive.

Every winning team has the water carriers, the players who allow the flair players to play.

Perhaps slightly more water-carriers might achieve a better balance but of course it won't ensure chemistry. Personally, I would always have a three-star and two-‘worker' mix on the court whenever possible. Of course I am not so naïve as to think basketball is as simplistic as this.

However, I can't wait to see what Ekaterinburg does in the summer and if players weren't still attached to their various clubs, I could have given you my seven and five formula of star players and workers that would make up my Ekat roster for next year!


ALL POWER TO PETROVIC

Watching a healthy Sonja Petrovic pretty much firing on all cylinders is one of the things at the top of my list, in terms of memories.

She did so much for the team and delivered all of that promise we saw before her injury problems.

I love her style, her willingness to do a little bit of everything and I really hope as a big fan of hers that she does stay injury-free because that would be a huge bonus for Sparta&K , Serbia and women's basketball generally.

She's still young and I think she can be one of the best players in Europe in the next couple of years - this is how much I rate her game after seeing her in action last week.


AN ALL TOURNAMENT TEAM

I have had so many requests asking me for my All Tournament Team and I absolutely hate doing these if I am honest, because you lose more friends than you win.

Additionally, I could probably think all day long and still keep changing it.

So, with a deep breath, I am going for a starting three of Sylvia Dominguez, Zane Tamane and Asjha Jones.

As for the other two spots? Well quite simply, ten doesn't go into two. Give me another few weeks and I might have finally decided!


WOMEN'S BASKETBALL FAMILY

Finally, I just want to reiterate how wonderful it is to get together with everyone who works so hard within the women's basketball family.

From club staff, coaches, players, my media colleagues and of course the fans, there is no better feeling than talking with other people who share the passion for EuroLeague Women - and especially chatting within an exquisite backdrop of a quite wonderful and vibrant place like Istanbul.


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