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A EuroLeague Women regular season wrap
NEWCASTLE (Paul Nilsen's Women's Basketball Worldwide) - Fans of EuroLeague Women had better enjoy the respite as we finally manage to catch a breath between the end of the regular season and the start of the end-of-season play-offs.
Next week, 14 teams will fight it out to join hosts and reigning champions UMMC Ekaterinburg at the Final Eight next month.
Looking back on the regular season, it has been as entertaining as ever and with much to enjoy. The headlines? Well, probably four of five standout ones for me.
Good Angels Kosice moving to the Steel Arena and getting some massive crowds in excess of 8,000 people was terrific, even if the team couldn't quite deliver the wins to reward the massive turnout.
Still, it was a great tribute to the management and people of Kosice getting behind women's basketball in this manner. Now Maros Kovacik must try and get his side back to the Final Eight by beating a strong and in-form Tango Bourges, who have already beaten their Slovak Republic opponents twice during the regular season.
Breaking this down, Kayseri Kaski spor were thrown into a so-called group of death. Your first season playing in this elite level is never going to be an easy ride, but this made their rookie campaign doubly difficult. But, the Turkish side recovered from a shaky start and managed to claim a play-off spot and most impressively of all, managed to beat every fellow Group A team during the campaign - including the mighty UMMC.
Considering the deflating experience of throwing away the prospect o landing the EuroCup Women title on their home court last season in front of a huge five figure crowd, this has given the club a spectacular confidence boost.
Fenerbahce made the title game at the Final Eight last season and having enhanced their already star-studded roster, it was no surprise they finished top of group B. Their frontcourt in particular is top class, with the likes of Isabelle Yacoubou, Anastasiya Verameyenka, Quanitra Hollingsworth and Ivana Matovic, but it has been USA national team player Angel McCoughtry who has been absolutely sensational.
She has led the team in points, rebounds and steals as the centrepiece of an unbeaten season which has returned 12 wins from as many games. Credit is due to head coach Roberto Iniguez for completing something which happens very rarely in such a demanding competition.
Also in Group B, you have to love the job done by Igor Polenek in his first year in the competition. The Serbian play-caller, who will be an assistant for his home nation at the FIBA World Championship for Women in Turkey later this year (27 September-5 October), carried UE Sopron to their first play-off berth in three years.
The Hungarians will now face Sparta&K M.R. Vidnoje, who have done a remarkable job with such a young team to finish second in Group D. Having lost their first two games of the season, new head coach Alexander Vasin masterminded an outstanding run and his appointment has proven to be arguably the best acquisition of the entire pre-season.
The club also dealt with the potentially devastating loss of veteran Asjha Jones to injury, bringing in Serbian center Tijana Ajdukovic and she has been a revelation. Going from not even starting on a regular basis in EuroCup Women, to being one of the main contributors for Sparta&K. The emergence of young guns Daria Namok and 17-year-old Kseniia Levchenko has also been a joy.
Group D was conquered by a vibrant veteran team in ZVVZ USK Prague. Always the bridesmaid and never the bride when it comes to EuroLeague Women and the play-offs, it will be fascinating to see how the club fares in this post-season.
Natalia Hejkova has managed to get her experienced roster playing exceptionally well and it isn't surprising the club have posted their best-ever placing. Now the onus will be on the outstanding Montenegrin forward Jelena Dubljevic, the tournament’s leading assists queen Laia Palau and the likes of Czech legend Eva Viteckova to finally catapult Prague to Final Eight.
The other headline was UMMC Ekaterinburg actually losing successive away games. That isn't a slight - it's a compliment. They have set the bar so high because of their exceptional performances last year at the Final Eight en-route to the podium summit, that everything they do as a champion team is magnified and analysed to a greater extent and to much more demanding standards. And, I am sure head coach Olaf Lange wouldn't want it any other way.
Next, it's the play-offs and I really can't wait to see whether they throw up any major surprises.
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