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Laia Palau still leading the charge for more Spanish success
RIGA (Latvia) - Two years ago, Laia Palau was ready to bring the curtain down on an illustrious career, yet here she is leading from the front once more as Spain aim to repeat their Prague success.
A sweep of Group A - albeit with stern challenges along the way - gives the reigning champions direct passage onto Belgrade as one of the eight remaining teams battling for the coveted crown after the Group Phase and the Qualification for the Quarter-Finals.
"We are happy right now because we knew before the tournament it would be difficult," says Palau. "Every team is different with their own identity and you just have to look at some of the results so far. When we win, we still have to learn. It is important to win even when you are not at your best."
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The world of basketball rejoiced when the retirement U-turn came last year. And while onlookers can be thankful for getting to see Palau on the floor at another major tournament, for the Barcelona-native herself, it is business as usual.
Something she has been doing since making her FIBA Women's EuroBasket debut back in 2003, accumulating an impressive seven medals along the way with two titles coming in 2013, and 2017.
"It’s just another European championship for me," she says with a smile. "It's not different. Just the same thing I've been doing the last 17 years. The level is higher and there are more teams fighting for the Olympic Games and getting those tickets."
After silver in Rio at the 2016 Olympics, can we expect to see Palau again next summer, in Tokyo, providing Spain were to qualify?
"No, no," begins Palau, pre-empting the question. "My goal is to be here and try to work for the goals of the team. Of course, first of all we want to qualify for the Olympic Games and then fight for another gold here. It doesn't matter if we qualify, I don't know if I will go - you don't know what will happen in the future."
Palau arrived in Riga with the national team off the back of a successful season at Spar CityLift Girona in Spain.
While they missed out on a place in the EuroCup Women Final after a 167-135 aggregate defeat against BLMA, they ensured a jubilant end to the 2018-19 season as they overcame Perfumerias Avenida to capture the LFB play-offs title.
"Overall, it was special. A hard season for our team, but to beat a team like Salamanca was a big thing - they are the 'Queens of Spain' usually so it was a surprise even for us. We worked for that the whole season and we got the prize. We will see next season - we are very happy because we got back into EuroLeague again - it grows the club.
"The season was successful, so I was like 'Ok, maybe I am going to EuroBasket, too'."
However, none of this would have happened had it not been for a trip down under, reveals Palau. Joining WNBL side Dandeong Rangers was intended to be part of a farewell to her basketball career, but instead managed to keep the flame burning bright.
"If I didn’t go there, I wouldn't be here today. When I took that option, I was going there to retire.
"But, no. I was really working, it was hard physically and it made me think that I'm still on the road to keep playing.
"I prefer to be in Europe playing my basketball - it's easier for me. And then I took the decision to go to the [FIBA Women's Basketball] World Cup."
Bronze followed after edging Belgium to third place in Tenerife and now just a few months shy of her 40th birthday, Palau's influence is still as prominent as ever - particularly with the notable absence of FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2017 MVP, Alba Torrens.
With over 1,000 assists in EuroLeague Women, the playmaking skills were on full show in Riga with her leadership far more valuable.
"She's our leader, both on and off the court," says Silvia Dominguez of her teammate. "For us, having her here - especially with no Alba, no Sancho (Lyttle) is very important to guide us and all the things you cannot see in the statistics.
"We want her to be with us always, but we know one day it will be finished so we just try to keep learning from her."
Palau adds: "I don't know exactly (how much I help). It's true, for sure, that they will learn, but not just from me. The main group is around 30 so maybe, yes, I am a little bit older, but we have experience. For me, most important is our genetics in Spain. This fight and never giving up, it brings us always to the best positions - even if we are not the best.
"Not having one of the best players in Europe, it matters. Our structure as a team has changed a little bit. Alba has these magic skills and can score from anywhere so we are working more as a team to have these clear, open shots. We have survived before. We are a team and have good players everywhere. Alba is a big player for us, but we will find other ways, for sure."
From Riga to Belgrade, the Spanish mission continues. Another top step on the podium is up for grabs and a slice of history by becoming the first team to successfully defend their title in almost 30 years.
"We have to play with high intensity on defense, always," Palau concludes.
"All the teams are stronger than us. We have to be close to them, force turnovers to let us run - that is how we feel comfortable, playing in transition."