EKATERINBURG (EuroLeague Women) - The countdown is officially on for the EuroLeague Women Final Eight in Russia, with hosts UMMC Ekaterinburg looking to cap a dominant season with their first title in the competition since 2003.
The event tips off on Monday, and star-studded UMMC, who have lost just once in the competition all season, take on CCC Polkowice in their Group A opener before meeting Galatasaray and Good Angels Kosice.
In Group B are Sparta&K Moscow Region, Bourges, Fenerbahce and Beretta Famila Schio.
UMMC only narrowly avoided falling to a surprise defeat to Dynamo Kursk in their last game before the Final Eight.
Getting big plays from USA Olympian Candace Parker and Russia’s Olga Arteshina at the end, UMMC scraped a 73-70 victory.
Playing at home should benefit UMMC.
“Unlike the rest of the teams in the Final Eight, we do not need to adjust to jet lag,” Parker said.
Then again, UMMC hosted the EuroLeague Women Final Four in 2011 and were upset by their Russian rivals, Sparta&K, in the Semi-Finals.
Historically, Ekat, have not been able to deliver at the most important time of the season in Europe.
Last year, they travelled to Istanbul as one of the favorites but lost to Ros Casares in the first game, 62-49.
The format was different, with only the group winners progressing to the Final.
Ros didn’t lose again and finished ahead of UMMC to reach the title game, where they defeated Rivas Ecopolis.
Now all UMMC need to do is finish among the top two in Group A to advance to the Semi-Finals, which are to be played on Friday (22 March).
The championship will be played two days later.
Another big difference from past seasons for UMMC is that the club now has arguably the most best and certainly most player ever to compete in the EuroLeague Women, Diana Taurasi.
A three-time Olympic champion of the United States, Taurasi led Ros to EuroLeague Women glory in 2007, ’08, ’09 and ’10.
Taurasi, 30, averaged 16.8 points, five assists and 4.3 rebounds per game in the EuroLeague Women this season.
UMMC also have Spain international Silvia Dominguez, who was outstanding for Perfumerias a couple of years ago in the Final and last season with Ros Casares, and France’s Sandrine Gruda.
Dominguez will be the point guard for UMMC, with the club opting to play with Parker and Taurasi as their two USA internationals and not Sue Bird.
Galatasaray, an outfit that her side has beaten twice this season and one that includes three EuroLeague Women winners from Ros Casares’ team in Sancho Lyttle, Ann Wauters and Eshaya Murphy, should be the toughest opponents for the hosts in a Group A.
UMMC had better not look past Polkowice in their opener, however.
The Poles, led by the country’s women’s national team coach Jacek Winnicki, have former Ros Casares captain Laia Palau, Australia international Belinda Snell and rising American star Nnemkadi Ogwumike – last year’s Rookie of the Year in the WNBA with the Los Angeles Sparks.
Sparta&K are always a tough team to face this time of year and they have plenty of firepower and an excellent coach in Pokey Chatman.
USA internationals Seimone Augustus and Candice Dupree, along with veteran point guard Becky Hammon (Russia), are their best known players.
Former Ros Casares and Rivas star Elisa Aguilar provides important minutes in the backcourt for Sparta&K, and France's Isabelle Yacoubou – a title-winner with Ros last year - is an important frontline player.
“This season wasn’t easy, but we won the games that we had to win,” Yacoubou said. “All season we have been preparing for this event, which has all of the best basketball players of today meeting in Ekaterinburg this year.
“I can’t wait.”
As for the favorite tag on UMMC, Yacoubou warned: “There are no favorites at the Final Eight. On paper, there are teams that are stronger like Ekat, like Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and us, but it’s a game. In one game, anyone can win.”
Russia internationals in the Sparta&K squad include Evgeniia Beliakova, Marina Kuzina and Natalia Vieru.
Key players for Fenerbahce are Angel McCoughtry and Cappie Pondexter (both United States), Agnieszka Bibrzycka (Poland), Birsel Vardarli (Turkey) and Ivana Matovic (Serbia).
Bourges will be dangerous with their France national team trio of Celine Dumerc, Endene Miyem and Emmeline Ndongue.
Great Britain's Jo Leedham, the joint-leading scorer from the Olympics, is also with Bourges.
Schio, meanwhile, have the evergreen Italian
Laura Macchi and they are also going into the Final Eight flying high.
The team recently won the Coppa Italia.