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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Russia, Spain, France Again the Favorites as Eurobasket 2011 Gets Underway

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Caption: EuroBasket Women 2011 tipped off this weekend in Bydgoszcz and Katowice, Poland, where national teams from 16 countries will vie for the European championship and a berth in the 2012 London Olympics. The medal games will be held on July 3, in Lodz, Poland.

Image Credit: Courtesy FIBA Europe/EuroBasket Women 2011

By Bert Larsimont

FIBA’s EuroBasket Women 2011 kicked off Saturday, June 18, 2011, in Poland, where, as usual, Russia, Spain, France, and the Eastern European squads are the favorites among the 16 national teams that have earned the right to compete for both the European title and, with it, a berth in the 2012 Olympic Games.

Teams have been divided into four groups which will compete in two preliminary rounds of round-robin-like competition from June 18 through June 27 at the Luczniczka Sports Arena (capacity: 8,000) in Bydgoszcz and the Spodek Arena (capacity: 11,500) in Katowice. The tournament will then move to Lodz Area (capacity: 11,500) in Lodz, the second-largest city in Poland, from June 29 through July 3 for the quarterfinals through the championship game.

Poland has hosted the Eurobasket Women competition on three occasions previously, but this year, the venue is particularly poignant as Polish organizers continue to mourn the death of their most remarkable woman professional player and former Polish National Team star Malgorzata Dydek-Twigg, just weeks before the event tipped off.

Former WNBA player Margo Dydek had been in a medically induced coma in a Brisbane, Australia, hospital after suffering a heart attack since May 19th, 2011. The 37-year-old, who played for the Utah Starzz, San Antonio Silver Stars, Connecticut Sun and two games for the Los Angeles Sparks, collapsed at her home in Brisbane and was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance that same day.

“Margo Will Always Remain in Our Memory”

Photo Caption: Polish women’s basketball star Margo Dydek shoots over a Spanish defender in the EuroBasket Women 2003 bronze medal game on September 28, 2003. This year, Poland mourns the death of the 7-2 international star as it hosts EuroBasket Women 2011.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FIBA Europe/Ciamillo Castoria

Dydek, a former Polish League MVP and European All-Star, had suffered from an irregular heartbeat for some time, but her sudden death shocked the women’s basketball world on three continents. Dydek was rushed to the hospital by ambulance on May 19, 2011, after collapsing of a heart attack in her home in Brisbane, Australia, where she was working as a coach for the Northside Wizards in the Queensland Basketball League this season. After being placed in a medically induced coma, Dydek, who was pregnant with her third child (who also died), passed away a week later on May 27.  Dydek was just 37 years old.

“Large Marge” (as she was nicknamed in her years playing in the USA’s WNBA) was born in Poznan, Poland, where she started playing basketball at the age of 12 when she was a strapping 5-feet, 11-inches tall. When she appeared at a WNBA predraft training camp in 1998, she was listed at 6-6—impressive enough in the world of women’s basketball. Apparently, however, the individual who prepared the listing had some difficulty in converting centimeters, as jaws dropped around the room when Dydek, all 7 feet, 2 inches of her—walked into the gymnasium. The Polish center was an easy choice as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 WNBA draft, the second year of the league.

She was selected by what was then the Utah Starzz, and remained with the team when they moved to San Antonio, Texas, becoming the San Antonio Silver Stars. She was traded to the Connecticut Sun in 2005, and, after a brief retirement, finished out 10-year WNBA career with a brief stint with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2008.

Dydek was once famous for being the tallest active professional female basketball player in the world. But at 7-2, Dydek was also taller than all but a handful of the male professional basketball players of her day (and most of those were relative unknowns). When Dydek began her career with the WNBA, only seven NBA players had any height advantage on her, the Indiana Pacers’ Rik Smits (7-4) and the Portland Trailblazers’ Arvydas Sabonis (7-3) being the best known among them. Indeed, only 20 players in NBA history have stood 7-3 or taller, and of them, only Sabonis has made his way into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Height alone would have quickly propelled Dydek to notoriety—she appeared on NBC’s Jay Leno’s Tonight show and was featured in Sports Illustrated. But Dydek, a two-time WNBA All-Star, married her height advantage with a skill level that matured quickly during her years in the pros and an agility unusual in players of her size. (On a personal note, I remember having had a “Oh! Wow!” reaction when I saw her for the first time on a court during a US Valenciennes vs. Lotos Gdynia Euroleague game a few years ago. It was not only because of her 7-2 height, but mostly because she could play basketball so very well.)

Dydek used her seven-foot wingspan most effectively on defense, leading the league in blocks for nine of her 10 seasons in the WNBA and still holds the record for most blocks in a WNBA career, with 877 blocks in 323 games (average of 2.72 bpg). She also boasted a WNBA career average of 10 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Her shy and humble demeanor off the court also endeared her to many of her fellow players and fans.

Dydek had solidified her reputation as an athlete on the European scene well before her arrival in the WNBA, anchoring the post for Olimpia Poznan from 1992 to 1994, moved to US Valenciennes Orchies in France from 1994 to 1996, went on to Spain where she played for Pool Getafe from 1996 to 1998. She continued to compete in the European leagues during the winter seasons of her WNBA career, returning to Poland to play for Fota Porta Gdynia during the 1998-99 campaign.

From 1999 to 2001, Dydek played for Polpharma VBW Clima Gdynia in Poland, averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game in Euroleague competition. At her peak, she was chosen as Poland’s Sports Woman of the Year,  and was honored as MVP of the 1999-2000 Polish League Finals. She was also named the best female basketball player in Europe by the major Italian sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport.

From 2001 to 2004, the Polish center played again for Lotos VBW Clima Gdynia, which in 2002 and 2004 were runners-up in the FIBA Euroleague. In the 2004-05 season, she played for Lotos Gdynia. In 2006 she joined the Russian powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg, and for Ros Casares Valencia of Spain in 2007. Her career as a player came to an end in 2008, not long after the birth of her first child.

Dydek had long been a member of the Polish National Team. The Polish women’s basketball legend had led her country to the 1999 FIBA EuroBasket Women title, averaging a tournament-best 19.3 points and 9.4 rebounds. She posted a 19-point, 11-board double-double in Poland’s 59-56 win over France in the gold medal game of that tournament, hosted in her home country. Dydek also led the Polish squad to 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and played her last game for her national team after EuroBasket 2007, when Poland narrowly missed the final cut.

Dydek began her coaching career in Australia in September 2009 after her husband, David Twigg, who is British, got a job in Brisbane. She is survived by her husband and two sons, three-year-old David and seven-month-old Alex.

“Małgosia na zawsze pozostanie w naszej pamięci!” (“Margo Will Always Remain in Our Memory!”) was the message published on the Lotos Gdynia website soon after the death of the former Polish star was announced.  The Polish Basketball Federation also sent condolences to the family and friends of their champion, headlining their website: “Małgorzata Dydek-Twigg nie żyje” (Margo Dydek-Twigg Has Died”).

FIBA Europe President Olafur Rafnsson stated, “Malgorzata was one of the great representatives of our sport. It is shocking to lose her at such a young age.”

Meanwhile, Lotos fans have urged the retirement of Dydek’s Lotos jersey number 12 and hope to install a huge number 12 jersey in the local arena Hali Sportowo-Widowiskowej in her memory.

Friends and fans around the world have joined Poland in a state of mourning.  WNBA player and Olympic champion Katie Smith, who played with Margo Dydek in Gdynia in 2002, wrote to me last week sharing her reactions to Dydek’s death: “Very sad news about Margo….she was a special lady and her family and friends will miss her dearly.”

Eurobasket Women 2011 Competition System

Alongside the condolences for Dydek’s passing, the Polish Basketball Federation (PZKOSZ) website features the next EuroBasket Women 2011, the fourth to be held in Poland. At stake are not only the bragging rights to the biennial championship for Europe’s national teams, but also a trip to the 2012 London Olympics. Of the 12 teams that will compete in the London Olympics, only two—the United States, as winner of the 2010 Women’s World Championship, and Great Britain, whose place as a host nation was recently confirmed—have been established thus far. Five more will earn berths as the winners of their respective FIBA continental championships—the Americas, Asia, Africa, Oceania and, in the case of Europe, EuroBasket Women 2011.

The winner of EuroBasket Women 2011 gets its ticket to the Olympics punched, but even for EuroBasket’s “also-rans,” the order of finish is important: The second through fifth-place finishers win the right to compete in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament to be played next summer to determine the last five Olympic berths. 

The 16 teams participating in EuroBasket Women 2011 earned their right to compete in the tournament—either by virtue of their finish in last year’s World Championships for Women or in Qualifying Rounds held earlier this year. As previously noted, the teams have been divided into four preliminary round groups:

Group A

1. Lithuania
2. Russia

3. Slovakia
4. Turkey


Group B

1. Belarus

2. Czech Republic
3. United Kingdom

4. Israel

Group C

1. Spain

2. Montenegro

3. Poland

4. Germany

Group D

1. Croatia
2. France
3. Greece

4. Latvia

Each team will play each of the other teams in its group. After the first three days of competition, the top three teams in each group will advance to a second preliminary, or qualifying, round while the team with the poorest record in each group will be eliminated.

After a day of rest, the next qualifying round, to be played from June 22nd through June 27,  with the remaining field consolidated into two groups of six teams apiece. Each team in each of the newly formed groups will play all of the teams in its own group. At the end of this six-day span of competition, another cut will be made, with the top four teams in each group advancing to the quarterfinals, and the bottom two teams in each group eliminated. (Rankings will be based on the team’s results in both rounds of preliminary competition.)

The final round stage to be held at the Lodz Arena in Lodz, Poland will be played in a sudden-death system from June 29th through July 3. In the quarterfinals, the top-ranked team in one group will play the fourth-place team in the other group, while the second-place team will play the third-place team in the opposite second-round group. The winners of the quarterfinals will advance to the semifinals, while the losers fall into a consolation bracket for fifth to eighth-places. Unlike many tournaments, this consolation competition still holds meaning, since the fifth-place finisher will still earn the right to compete in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

The two semifinal winners will vie for the EuroBasket Women 2011 title in the gold medal game to be held in Lodz on July 3 at 4:30 p.m. Eastern, 10:30 p.m. local, immediately following the bronze medal game that will tip off two-and-a-half hours earlier.

Handicapping the Competition


Having closely followed the EuroBasket 2011 preparation campaign, I can already tell you that Russia, Spain, the Czech Republic and France have reasons to smile and are my favourites for the EuroBasket 2011 title. Just like in the FIBA Euroleague and EuroCup this season, the Spanish, Russian, French and Eastern European hegemony is still the rule in European women’s national team competitions.

After its disappointing 2010 World Championship campaign in Czech Republic last October, Russia, led by its stars Maria Stepanova, Marina Kuzina and the team’s newly named captain Svetlana Abrosimova, will be looking for revenge and a return to the championship track at the EuroBasket Women 2011. Ilona Korstin, Irina Osipova, Olga Arteshina, Tatiana Popova, Evgenia Belyakova, Elena Danilochkina, Natalya Myasoedova, Liudmilla Sapova and Tatiana Vidmer round out the team.

Russia is still loaded with talent, but remains strongest in the front court and most vulnerable at the point. For this reason, many were surprised when the team decided to forgo the services of one of its newest citizens, Epiphanny Prince, the American-born Rutgers product who won Guard of the Year honors and averaged 16.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game while playing for Spartak Moscow in Euroleague play this year and 12.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 2.4 steals per game in the Russian League after 25 games.

South Dakota-born Becky Hammon had been the last American to hold down the point for the Russians, but the Russian Team, who could have called upon her again, was relying upon Prince this time around. However, Russian Boris Sokolovsky held a team meeting after negotiations for Prince’s participation had grown “difficult” and disclosed that the players who had been training with the team since the outset felt they had enough firepower to win without the American-born guard.

The Russians will have plenty to contend with if they are to reestablish themselves as Europe’s women’s basketball superpower, however.

For one, Spain, led by its superstar Alba Torrens, perhaps the most promising young player in Europe, has only grown stronger since its impressive 2010 World Championship campaign. Though Prince helped lead her club Spartak Vidnoje Moscow Region to the Euroleague Final Four, for once, Spartak did not win the Euroleague title this season. After four Euroleague titles in a row for Spartak, Halcon Avenida Salamanca, also led by Alba Torrens (who has signed a contract with Galatasaray for the next two seasons), defeated defending champion Spartak, 69-58, giving no chance to Pokey Chatman’s Spartak players in the final game.

As one French newspaper put it in its headline, “Le Spartak ne règne plus” (“Spartak Does Not Reign Anymore”). The win is perceived by many as indicative of a shift is perceived in European women basketball dominance. Spanish, not Russian, basketball is currently viewed as number one on the continent. The title run also aroused a groundswell of popular support for women’s basketball as the Spanish media reveled in Halcon Avenida’s success.

The 21-year-old Torrens will have plenty of help in Spain’s Eurobasket Women 2011 campaign from WNBA All-Star Sancho Lyttle and talented Spanish National Team veterans Amaya Valdemoro, Anna Montanana, Elisa Aguilar, Laia Palau and Cindy Lima. Laura Nicholls, Silvia Dominguez, Lucila Pascua, Marta Xargay and Anna Cruz fill out the squad.

Defending champion France cannot be underestimated, either. France suffered their own disappointments at the Women’s World Championships last year, narrowly missing the semifinals and ultimately finishing in sixth place. But under Head Coach Pierre Vincent, Les Bleues finished undefeated at the EuroBasket preparatory Picardy Tournament a week ago, including a 55-47 win over Russia in the friendly competition. France will have to defend its EuroBasket title without center Elodie Godin and forward Marielle Amant, both of whom are injured. (Godin enjoyed a third straight successful season with her Italian club Cras Taranto, but was carrying a knock in the last games of the team.) Still, Les Bleues have the leadership and playmaking of a sensational and experienced point guard in Celine Dumerc, and they will also have back Emilie Gomis and Sandrine Gruda, both of whom were sidelined for the Worlds. Also back with the National Team after a long absence is veteran guard Edwige Lawson-Wade. Rounding out the roster announced by the French staff will be Clemence Beikes, Aurelie Bonnan, Jennifer Digbeu, Marion Laborde, Florence Lepron, Endene Miyem, Emmeline Ndongue and Isabelle Yacoubou-Dehoui.

Also a strong contender: The Czech Republic, who made their mark with their silver-medal finish in the Women’s World Championships last year. The Czechs return minus the leadership of captain Hana Horakova, who retired after being named MVP of the 2010 Women’s World Championships. Team stars Jana Veselá and Eva Vitecková are back, though the fitness of sharpshooting Vitecková is in question after she was forced to sit out this year’s Euroleague All-Star game with a finger injury. Alena Hanusová, Romana Hejdova, Michaela Zrustova, Ilona Burgrová, Katerina Bartonova, Veronika Bortelová, Katerina Elhotova, Michala Hartigová, Petra Kulichová, and Zora Skrabalová  fill out the team.

Belarus and Slovakia have also emerged as possible challengers this year. Belarus’s place among the contenders cannot be considered surprising anymore after its impressive campaign in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. They are a well-balanced squad, and team leaders Natalia Anufryienka, Anastasiya Veremeenko and Yelena Leuchanka have played excellent games during the preparation period.

Slovakia also won a well-organized tournament in Riga, Latvia, where Slovak guard Darina Misurova stepped up with 22 points in the 80-77 final victory over Latvia.

Several teams have suffered setbacks in the weeks leading up to the tournament. Perhaps the worst hits were suffered by Croatia, who looked promising after beating the Czech Republic in a friendly game in the run-up to the tournament, but took serious hits to its frontcourt with the loss of 22-year-old center Marija Vrsaljko to serious injury. Croatia had already lost team captain Andrea Jelavic, a guard, to a knee injury early this month, and experienced 31-year-old forward-center Petra Stampalija is also out of action for the tournament. With Jelavic out of the running, the mantle of leadership has fallen to veteran sharpshooter Sandra Mandir, who will need plenty of help from forward Ana Lelas, another player with plenty of experience, to hold the young squad together.

The Slovak National Team has also been hard hit by the injury bug, and will enter the tournament without the services of their star Zuzana Zirkova. Slovakia—already under the leadership of a new coach in Natalia Hejkova, who took over the helm from Pokey Chatman, now head coach for the WNBA’s Chicago Sky—will also be missing team captain Ivana Jalcova, out with a hamstring injury, as well as Martina Gyurcsi, Lucia Laskova and Katarina Hrickova. And Luisa Michulkova, back from ACL surgery but now suffering from iron deficiency, is questionable. As a result, Slovakia will be relying on many new faces in its Eurobasket Women 2011 campaign. (One of those faces—Purdue forward Erin Lawless—may be remembered by fans of the American college game.)

In mid-May, we also learned that guard Esmeral Tuncluer of Fenerbahce Istanbul was injured and will not make it to Poland for EuroBasket 2011.  It was a critical loss for the Turks, as Tuncluer had averaged 13.3 points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game over the in 8 games of the qualification games for the European championships.

Not even hosting Poland was immune from attrition. News came from Poland in mid-May that Agnieszka Bibrzycka would not play for Poland at the EuroBasket Women 2011 due to undisclosed personal reasons. Bibrzycka, who plays for Russian league champion UMMC Ekaterinburg, remains one of the best Polish players. She averaged 12.0 points per game in the 2010-11 EuroLeague and had 6.9 points in Russian League play. The Polish squad for the EuroBasket 2011 will include Katarzyna Dzwigalska, Anna Pietrzak, Weronika Idczak, Paulina Pawlak, Elzbieta Mowlik, Agnieszka Skobel, Agnieszka Szott, Malgorzata Babicka, Katarzyna Krezel, Oliwia Tomialowicz, Agnieszka Kaczmarczyk, Justyna Zurowska, Joanna Czarnecka, Patrycja Gulak-Lipka, Alaksandra Chomac and Emilia Tlumak.

Poland’s NT coach Dariusz Maciejewski looks forward for the upcoming event. The hosts will face the 2009 bronze medalists Spain, as well as Montenegro and Germany in Group C’s preliminary round play.

Recapping the 2011 Euroleague Final Four

The Euroleague’s Final Four featured two teams from Russia and two from Spain. As already noted, Halcon Avenida dethroned reigning champion Spartak Moscow in the gold medal game.

The bronze medal contest featured a slugfest between Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg, the Final Four host, and Spain’s Ros Caseres Valencia. It was only in the last quarter that UMMC took a large lead to earn a spot on the podium of the 2011 Euroleague edition with a 64-52 victory. Nevertheless, some observers keep comparing UMMC Ekaterinburg to former tennis woman player Anna Kournikova: very nice and appealing on paper but not winning (the big one) very often. On the Ros Casares side, the revolution wanted by the club’s general manager Carme Lluvera does not seem to be very efficient so far.

In the semis, Spartak (to the surprise of many) eliminated UMMC Ekaterinburg, 54-43, and Halcon Avenida, led by stars Sancho Lyttle and Anke De Mondt, got rid of Ros Casaraes, 61-49, despite a very tough first 25 minutes in the game, prevailing thanks to a fantastic defense in the final half.

Recapping the 2011 EuroCup Finals

In the second major FIBA European club competition, the EuroCup, the final was played in two legs under an aggregate system, with the team with the highest cumulative score from both games taking the title. For the first time ever, French club Arras Pays d’Artois Basket Féminin, featuring U.S. pro guard Leilani Mitchel, and Israeli team Elitzur Ramla reached the final stage. In the first leg, played in Israel, Arras managed not to lose the game as the scoreboard showed a 61-61 tie after the first 40 minutes played.

The series then moved to France, but homecourt advantage wouldnot be enough for the French side to win the EuroCup title. Elitzur Ramla came to France on March 24 to win the second leg by an eight-point margin, 61-53.  Arras finished the first half down 11 points and never could come back after the break.

The EuroCup Women success of Elitzur Ramla has given a real lift and injected a good dose of optimism back into the Israeli National Team which will also participate in EuroBasket Women 2011. Elitzer Ramla star Shay Doron had a fantastic season and was Israel’s second-leading scorer in the EuroBasket Women Qualifying Round, where she averaged 19.5 points per game. Doron is one more player on whom to keep an eye as EuroBasket Women 2011 gets underway this weekend.

Originally published Sun, June 19, 2011

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