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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Great Debuts at EuroBasket Women for Montenegro and Great Britain—But Few Get to See It!

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Photo Caption: Montenegro has never before appeared in the final rounds of the EuroBasket Women’s tournament, but has been the big surprise in the field thus far. One of just two teams remaining with perfect records, the Montenegrins have been led by 28-year-old center Iva Perovanovic (above, red), who is averaging 20 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. Perovanovic leads all players in the competition in scoring and field-goal percentage (57.9 percent), ranks No. 2 overall in total rebounds, and tops the field in offensive rebounding (3.7 per game).

Photo Credit: Courtesy FIBA Europe/Elio Castoria

By Bert Larsimont

EuroBasket Women 2011 has gotten off to a great start since the opening round of preliminaries tipped off on June 18, with the tournament, being played in Bydgoszcz (Groups A and B) and Katowice (Groups C and D) Poland characterized, overall, by high quality competition and some surprising upsets. Regrettably, too few fans have gotten to see this top-level event, which will determine in part Europe’s berths in the 2012 London Olympics.

Only match-ups involving the Polish national team attracted a full house at the Spodek Arena in Katowice where, win or lose, the home crowd was enthusiastic and very cheerful. Elsewhere, though organization at both sites has been absolutely perfect so far, the first three days of competition has been marked by poor attendance, made worse by the lack of televised and internet access for remote fans of the game.

The game is supposed to be carried live on FIBA TV.com, a reasonably priced online subscription service. However, the games have been blacked out in the U.S., Japan, and Central/South America, and even in Europe, are unavailable online in France and Russia, home to many of the most avid fans of the game. U.S. fans with FIBA TV.com subscriptions are able to review archived footage of the tournament after a 48-hour delay—so, “spoiler alert”: If you really want to watch two-day-old games without knowing the outcomes, stop now, and cursor over to Full Court’s WNBA coverage.

In years past, the problem has been that FIBA has sold broadcast rights for the men’s and women’s tournaments as a package, while FIBA TV.com offers access to the men’s and women’s games separately to its subscribers. For example, in last year’s World Championships, NBA TV acquired broadcast rights to both the men’s and women’s tournaments, blacking out both over FIBA TV.com. But NBA TV actually aired n all of the men’s games, but only those women’s games in which the United States appeared. Blacked out on FIBA and ignored by NBA TV, that initially left American basketball fans with no means of accessing the other women’s games until a groundswell of public outcry led NBA TV to release the blackout of the remaining women’s games over FIBA TV.com.

This time around, FIBA TV.com has declined to say who holds the U.S. rights to EuroBasket Women broadcasts or why their own coverage has been placed under 48-hour blackout in the U.S. And a spokesman for NBA Entertainment professed no knowledge as to whether NBA TV owned the U.S. rights to EuroBasket Women or whether they might be able to release the blackout—at least before the tournament reaches the quarterfinals. Or—better still, whether NBA TV.com (a cable-only broadcaster) or some other outlet might actually broadcast the games in the U.S.

But the happy few who have gotten to see the tournament have enjoyed some great competition, as well as some impressive surprises, in the early going of the competition. Three squads in particular have impressed: Montenegro and Great Britain, both of whom are making their debut EuroBasket appearances in this competition, and rising women’s basketball power Latvia, all of whom have advanced to the second qualify round.

Pleasant Surprises

Montenegro has been perfect to date, recording three wins in as many Group C games. (They continued to run the table on the first day of Round Two competition, knocking off Croatia, 81-60, on Wednesday). One of those opening round wins came over European powerhouse, highly favored Spain. Despite a game-high 25 points, plus five boards, two assists, and two steals from the always inspiring young Spanish star Alba Torrens, as a team, Spain had no answer for Montenegrin center Iva Perovanovic, who put up 18 points, just missed making it a double-double with nine rebounds, plus four assists, a steal ad a block.

For their very first appearance in the biennial EuroBasket Women tournament, it has been a great performance for the team of Head Coach Miodrag Baletic. Besides Perovanovic, who averaged 17.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game in the first round of preliminaries, the Montenegrin roster boasts Michigan-born Anna De Forge, a University of Nebraska product and former WNBA All Star who has bounced back from last year’s ACL injury to emerge as an on-court leader for adopted Montenegro National Team, averaging 10 points, five rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game to this point of the tournament; center Milka Bjelica, who is averaging 10.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game; and 30-year old playmaker and team captain Jelena Skerovic (11 points, 6.3 rebounds and three assists per game), who is currently fourth in the tournament in three-point sharpshooting (54.5 percent) and 24-year-old forward Jelena Dubljevic, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder at 13 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, to which she adds an average of 5.7 assists.

Whether Montenegro can maintain its remarkable run into the quarterfinals and beyond remains to be seen. But the team has demonstrated remarkable mental toughness, reacting positively and continuing to fight and win, despite the loss of one of their major players, Anna Baletic, an experienced versatile athlete who can play either on the wings or as a power forward who over averaged 14 points and five rebounds per game in helping to lead Montenegro to its first-ever EuroBasket Women berth in the qualifying games last summer. Baletic had notched just five points when she suffered a knee injury in action against Poland in the first game of this EuroBasket Women 2011, and hasn’t been able to play since, but she was on the bench, cheering on her teammates, who rallied around her, returning her enthusiasm after they dropped Spain to secure their place in the second round.

A second “dark-horse” team that has proved to be more than a challenger in the first round: Latvia! The Baltic squad, led by a fantastic Elina Babkina (16.7 points, 2.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game through the three games of Preliminary Round One), notched a 59-56 overtime upset of the French defending champs in what was one of the greatest games in the first stage of this FIBA Europe competition. Latvia didn’t look nearly as good in their opening game of the tournament, a disappointing 57-67 loss to Greece, but with point guard Babkina as well as forward Gusta Basko (12.7 points and 6.0 rebounds per game after the first round) and center Zane Tamane, who is averaging a double-double of 11.7 points and 12.3 rebounds per game, to date, all performing well on both sides of the ball, the Latvians of Coach George Dikeoulakos won the third crucial game over Croatia, 62-53, to earn a spot in the second round. They took the first of their second-round games Wednesday in a 62-53 win over the Polish hosts. Because only the opening round results against advancing teams are carried forward, and their loss to the now-eliminated Greeks has thus been dropped, Latvia now stands atop the newly formed Group F (advancing teams from Round One Groups C and D), along side Montenegro, as one of the two teams in the group with unblemished 3-0 records.

Though Coach Tom Maher’s Great Britain squad hasn’t had quite the Cinderella campaign of Montenegro and Latvia, they surprised many by making it through to the second round and have performed unexpectedly well to date. To appreciate the significance of this accomplishment, one has to take into account where Great Britain started out. This is a nation that was considered so weak in basketball that they stood on the brink of becoming the first Olympic host in recent history to be denied a berth in the Olympic basketball competition. By last summer, Maher had whipped his team into good enough shape to earn their first ever EuroBasket Women appearance, and now, in their EuroBasket debut, they have made it through to the second round.

True, the British did go 1-2 in Group B before qualifying for Round Two by defeating a disappointing Israeli team, 74-51, in a last do-or-die Group B game in Bydgoszcz. But the Brits, led by guard Johannah Leedham (out of the NCAA’s Franklin Pierce University, 2006-2010), played well in their loss to 2010 Women’s World Championship silver medalist Czech Republic the previous night. Thanks to a tough defense, Maher’s team led the Czechs, 13-9, at the end of the first quarter before losing the game, 45-60, after a very honourable performance. And in the opening game of the second round, they pushed a strong Lithuanian squad to the limit, leading by two at the half and by as many as six late in the game, before falling by a single point, 63-64, after Lithuania rallied with a 6-0 run in the final minutes.

In addition to Leedham, who leads her team in both scoring (12.5 points per game) and assists (1.8 per game), the British feature a great line-up with tall and solid athletes like 6-5 London-born center Azania Stewart, a former Florida Gator (2008-2011) who thus far has been a more imposing presence on the backboards (5.8 rebounds per game) than the scoreboard (four points in 20 minutes per game); 6-2 power forward Julie Page, who led all scorers with 19 points, plus seven boards, against Lithuania, and is averaging six 10.3 points, 6.0 boards and 2.3 assists per game; frontcourt mate Kimberly Butler, who was born in Tacoma, Washington, who played for the NCAA’s Oregon State (2005-06) and is hot on Page’s heels with 9.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game; and 6-3 wing Chantelle Handy, born in Consett, England, who spent her college days (2005-10) as a member of the Thundering Herd of Marshall University. Despite its talent and steady improvement, it would still be a huge surprise if this squad makes it into the quarterfinals, but Maher has managed as much before at the helm of New Zealand, and this is plainly a team that could cause some trouble for more experienced opponents as the tournament continues.

The Fate of the Favourites

Head Coach Lubor Blazek’s powerhouse Czech Republic squad is the other undefeated team, alongside Montenegro, up to this point of the EuroBasket Women 2011 competition. The Czechs earned a huge measure of international respect after their heroic silver-medal campaign at the last World Championship held home, and the Czechs continue to be very impressive this year at EuroBasket.

The one-two punch of shooting guard Katerina Elhotova (17.7 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game and 3.3 assists per game thus far) and shooting forward Eva Viteckova (12.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game) has proved to be a powerful combination, especially as both have shown themselves more than capable of knocking down big three-pointers at crucial moments. Elhotova had 27 points against Great Britain in the second game of Preliminary Round One and Viteckova scored 18 in the Czechs’ third game, a 67-62 win over Belarus.

Except in the first half of the game against Britain, the Czechs have performed very efficiently so far. Besides their two shooting stars Elhotova and Viteckova, the Czechs show a strong roster at the EuroBasket, with very athletic players like Petra Kulichova, Ilona Burgrova and Jana Vesela doing a great job in the paint. They also field a steady backcourt featuring quick guards like Veronika Bortelova and Katerina Bartonova. Coach Blazek’s team currently lead the tournament in total rebounds (47.3 per game) and their strong defense also allows the Czechs to set up good transition plays.

Otherwise, although they started at a slower pace, still count on France, Spain, Russia and Belarus in this tournament. The defending champions, France, are coached by Pierre Vincent, who recently signed a contract with French Men’s Division I club ASVEL, partly owned by NBA superstar Tony Parker. Les Bleues unexpectedly lost to Latvia after overtime on the second day of the first round of preliminaries, but the game was very physical and pleasant to watch. Technically speaking, it was on a par with the rematch of the 2010 Worlds’ semi-final between Czech Republic and Belarus as the best game of the tournament thus far. The French side, led by playmaker Céline Dumerc (3.3 assists per game) and Sandrine Gruda (14.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.3 blocks per game) managed to combine quality and intensity to win the first game of round one against Croatia handily (86-40), and a convincing win against Greece (64-55) in the final game of Round One propelled the French into the second round of preliminaries.

Despite its stumble against Montenegro, Spain has the best offense of the EuroBasket 2011 with an average of 71.3 points scored per game to this point and remained a favourite to go the distance when competition entered the second round. Spain breezed past Germany, 79-69, on day one, but La Roja, the bronze medalists at the 2010 FIBA Women’s World Championships, lost to the upstart Montenegrins, 66-57, in game two. Though the Poles closed to within four in the closing minutes of game three, Spain bounced back from its previous day upset and held on to earn its place in the second round with a 78-63 game-three win over Poland.

The loss to Montenegro could actually prove to be positive as it seemed to bring Coach Juan Ignacio Hernandez’s players back down to earth while the buzz around his team and the chance of a gold medal at EuroBasket keeps growing in the Spanish media. Still, as the curtain closed on Round One, there were good reasons to remain optimistic. Young talent Alba Torrens (20.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists through Round One) remains a key player for the Spaniards and was the leading scorer and a candidate for tournament MVP if she maintains her level to date. In addition to Torrens, Sancho Lyttle has been doing a great job in the paint (11.3 points and five rebounds per game through the first preliminary round) despite having missed the preparation campaign with the national team, due to her commitment with the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, who are missing her sorely.

But Spain suffered a second body blow as Round Two tipped off, blowing a 48-44 third-quarter lead and allowing 16 unanswered points (part of a 26-1 run) to fall to France, 70-49. Torrens was held to just two points in the opening half, finishing with 10, and as a team, the Spaniards were out-rebounded, 22-37. With the loss, Spain fell to fourth position in Group F, and remains within reach of the quarterfinals, with games against Latvia and Croatia ahead in the next four days. But there is yet another question mark for La Roja: Although she scored 16 points in Spain’s first Group C match-up against Germany, team leader Amaya Valdemoro suffered a calf injury in that game and has been sidelined ever since. Can she return in time to help Spain to a title?

Russia is another favourite that has faced a much rockier road than any might have expected in the early going. Of course the Russians have always had a reputation of running like a diesel, getting off to rough starts and picking up steam as they go. This time around, Russia very narrowly avoided an upset by Slovakia, eking out a 68-66 win in the opening game. Lithuania then handed Team Russia a 76-64 spanking in game two.

Russia showed they are getting stronger by the day, clinching their berth in Round Two with an 80-65 game-three rout of Turkey. European superstar Maria Stepanova, making her eighth appearance for her national team in a EuroBasket tournament, leads her team in scoring (12.5 points per game), rebounding (8.3 boards per game) and steals (1.8 per game), but Olga Arteshina was the hero of the win over Turkey, leading the way for her team with 13 points, eight rebounds, four assists and a block.

Typically, the Russians just need time and a few games to find their right rhythm. But like Spain, Russia suffered a blow to both their pride and their prospects with an upset in their opening game in Round Two on Thursday. The pill was made all the bitter to swallow by the fact that the 51-62 loss came at the hands of Belarus, who had knocked the Russians out of medal contention in the Women’s World Championships a year ago. Today’s loss drops Russia to fourth place in Group E, and while still considered likely to advance to the quarters, the Russians do not have an easy road ahead of them, facing the Czech Republic on Saturday before meeting Great Britain in their final Round Two-game on Monday.

Belarus now stands in third place in Group E, after handily beating Great Britain (55-40) and Israel (68-41) before falling to the Czech Republic (62-57) in the opening round. Still wearing their “playing dresses” (consisting of designer dresses over shorts, Belarus has built its EuroBasket Women 2011 team around last year’s World Championship heroes (they finished an unprecedented fourth there): Tatsiana Likhtarovich, Natalia Anufryienka, Anastasiya Verameyenka, Yelena Leuchanka, Natalia Marchanka, Tatyana Troina, Nataliya Trafimava Yuliya Dureika, Sviatlana Valko, Aliaksandra Tarasava and Marina Kress. Only one new player has joined the group led by Head Coach Anatoli Buyalski in Poland: forward Katerina Snytsina of Russian club Nadezhda Orenburg. Belarus features a a balanced attack with no individual contributing more than 10 points per game, but eight players chipping in between five and nine each outing and bench scoring a key factor for Buyalski’s squad so far in the competition. Team leaders include playmaker Nataliia Marchanka with 9.3 points and 4.8 assists per game, and center Yelena Leuchanka (WNBA’s Atlanta Dream) who pulls down a team-high 9.5 boards to go with 8.5 points per outing.

The Back of the Pack

The other teams that qualified for the second round of EuroBasket Women 2011 are Poland, Turkey, Croatia and Lithuania. All four teams lack real stars.

Though by far the best of this bunch, Lithuania has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, they emerged from Group A with a nice opening day win over Turkey (64-58), and followed that up with a sweet 76-64 upset of neighboring Russia in which shooting guard Ausra Bimbaite poured in a game-high 20 points, with backcourt mate Sandra Linkeveciene, the team’s overall leader in scoring (12.3 points per game), rebouding (5.3 per game), assists (three per game) and steals (three per game), hot on her heels with 19 points for the outing.

However, the Lithuanians must have left it all on the floor, because they lost rather badly (46-57) to the Slovak Republic, Group A’s cellar dweller, the following day. And though Lithuania’s 2-1 Round One record still qualified them for Round Two, they only barely managed to squeak past Great Britain by the skin of their teeth (64-63) in their first game of second round competition.

Poland, the organizing country’s National Team, enjoys the advantage of home crowd support but advanced to Round Two despite unconvincing performances thus far. Poland fell to Montenegro (53-70) and Spain (63-78), qualifying for the second round thanks to a 75-60 victory over winless Germany.

The same can be said of the Turks, who despite the impressive efforts of their center Nevriye Yilmaz (team-high 15 points per game), sandwiched their sole Round One win—a 76-60 victory over Slovakia—between losses to Lithuania (58-64) and Russia (65-80).

Rounding things out is Croatia, which has to wish for these purposes that they were still married to Montenegro as the former Yugoslavia. First, they could they have used the Montenegrins’ firepower in Round One, from which they snuck into the second round with a 1-2 record after taking a pounding from the French (40-86) in the opening game and a 61-67 defeat by Latvia on day three, while recording their only victory, a narrow win (65-63), over Greece on day two. Then, in their Round Two opener, Croatia fell to their Montenegrin neighbors, 60-81, a loss that puts them dead last in Group F.

Still, everyone in this grouping has got to be cheerier than Germany, which qualified last for the EuroBasket 2011 final round by defeating Hungary in two aggregate legs of the additional qualifying round (59-53 and 67-56), the Slovak Republic, Israel and Greece, all of whom hit the road back home after being eliminated in the opening round.

Advancing teams carry with them into the second round their Round One records—wins, losses, points scored, points allowed, and classification points—against other teams that have also advanced. Their records against teams that have been eliminated from the competition are dropped.

Summing up, the six teams advancing out of Groups A and B have now been consolidated into Group E, which began the second round with the following standings:

1 Lithuania 2 0 140 129 4
2 Czech Republic 2 0 111 107 4
3 Belarus 1 1 117 107 3
4 Russia 1 1 144 141 3
5 Turkey 0 2 123 144 2
6 Great Britain 0 2 91 125 2

Group E begins Preliminary Round Two play on June 23, 2011, and proceeds with three games per day on June 25 and June 27.

Meanwhile, the six teams advancing out of Groups C and D have been merged into Group F with the following standings:

1 Montenegro 2 0 136 110 4
2 Latvia 2 0 126 117 4
3 France 1 1 142 99 3
4 Spain 1 1 135 129 3
5 Poland 0 2 131 148 2
6 Croatia 0 2 101 153 2

Group F began Preliminary Round Two play on June 22, 2011, and proceeds with three games per day on June 24 and June 26.


Originally published Thu, June 23, 2011

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