Why France can make it fourth time lucky, why Spain can defy modern history
BELGRADE (Serbia) - France are bidding to avoid a fourth consecutive silver medal at the FIBA Women's EuroBasket, while champions Spain are looking to do something no team has done in almost 30 years.
In what will be a repeat of the 2013 and 2017 Final, France and Spain will lock horns for the title game. The former want to get back onto the top podium step for the first time in a decade, while holders Spain need to defy modern history as no team had defended their title since 1991.
Reasons France can make it fourth time lucky
1. Marine Johannes
Yes, France have a string of high quality players from different generations within the roster. But, to beat Spain and belatedly land gold, surely they need something special. After the Quarter-Finals, head coach Valerie Garnier refused to talk about Johannes. Now, after her Semi-Final display which helped her team see off a pesky Great Britain, everybody else is talking about MJ. It looks like Johannes has got her confidence back at just the right time. If France want to do this, having that 'X-Factor' that spark and the something that even Spain struggle to offer, then surely Johannes is absolutely key. The big question is whether she will be allowed to take over the game and use her flair and style to give France that third dimension as a difference-maker?
2. Multiple top drawer players can step up together
Accompanying the point about a special individual like Johannes, the fact is that France also boast several top drawer players who can all get double-digits scores and offer major contributions. It's only that both in this tournament and in past Finals, they have not had, say four players all produce at the same time. They may need four from Sandrine Gruda, Endy Miyem, Bria Hartley, Valeriane Ayayi and Johannes for example, to all get 10-18 points in the title game. Surely they are capable when it matters most.
3. Because it is time and silver does not equal greatness
If this seems like a poor reason, then perhaps it actually is. But France can not be satisfied with silver anymore. Three in a row in impressive consistency. Coach Garnier has called it great and also French basketball great. To achieve true greatness, they need to win some titles. It has been too long. Plus, for all the valid arguments about missing 2-3 big name players (of which Helena Ciak in particular is a big loss), they are playing an opponent without the reigning MVP and their centerpiece in Alba Torrens. France have got to make that step up. Four Finals without a win is not something to celebrate for a nation with their tradition and resources.
Reasons Spain can defy modern history
1. Intensity and composure
Can any other nation demonstrate the same levels of intensity as Spain for such long periods? Everyone knows this is in the DNA of Spanish basketball, but it is maybe without the use of Torrens, they have turned up the dial to new levels. The way they destroyed Russia and laid down the early law with Serbia. Then, combined with this, the experienced backcourt had the composure needed in the white-hot atmosphere of the Semi-Final with Serbia when they fell behind and had 7 to 8,000 locals whistling. To keep calm and execute in that environment shows they have an incredible focus right now.
2. The Nicholls and Gil dirty work
Behind all the highlight reels of Spain's success in recent years, there is an unsung duo who rarely get the limelight. Laura Nicholls and Laura Gil are the players who get down and dirty in every big game. They are relentless, and when it comes to France (and many other teams) you know players who can do this kind of job, but wonder who will do it. With Spain, it is non-negotiable. They do it. This is not to decry the talent of Nicholls in particular, a EuroCup Women 2019 champion and also an All-Star Five contender. But the point is, whether she is shooting the ball well or not, you will always get the other things from her. It is the foundation of the Spanish team and their approach without a silky and deep frontcourt rotation like some other countries.
3. Track record of 'firsts' by Coach Mondelo
Lucas Mondelo has a track record of opening up new chapters. The first FIBA Women's World Championship Final for Spain, the first title game at the Olympics, the first FIBA Women's EuroBasket title his nation had won in 20 years and now, will it be the first nation since the Soviet Union in 1991 to defend their title? If anyone can, Mondelo can. It is what he does and it was interesting that before he left the Media Conference after the Semi-Final success, he had a joke about how long it has been. He made a noise as if to shiver that history suggests a curse or something not possible. But the reality is no doubt that beneath this veneer, this type of jinx for all champions is something he would love to break.