Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Twitter and Jersey Numbers

In today's Seattle Times Storm beat writer Jayda Evans has a look at the growing popularity of Twitter in the sports world. Evans features Storm forward Swin Cash (@SwinCash), with whom we conducted the league's first "Twitterview" earlier this month. The other Storm player on Twitter is training-camp invitee Kasha Terry (@Nicarra35).

Of course, you can follow the Storm's Twitter (@seattlestorm) to get the latest news as well as tidbits that don't fit into this blog. Look for us to continue to find creative ways to use Twitter as a source for real-time updates as we enter training camp and the season.

The WNBA (@WNBA) liked the Twitterview concept and has instituted Twitterview Thursdays, starting tomorrow with Atlanta's Chamique Holdsclaw at 10 a.m. Pacific.

On a tangentially-related note, checking out the Seahawks' Twitter feed (@seahawksSpin) reminded me to update everyone on jersey numbers for the Storm's newcomers.

- Shannon Johnson will wear #14 (previously worn by Astou Ndiaye-Diatta and Kate Paye)
- Ashley Walker will wear #44 (previously worn by Tully Bevilaqua and Michelle Edwards)
- Mara Freshour will wear #23 (previously worn by Angela Aycock, Katy Steding and Rita Williams)
- and Terry, in case you couldn't guess from her user name, will wear #35, which has not been worn by any Storm player during the regular season.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Donovan Joins Liberty as Assistant

Former Storm Head Coach Anne Donovan is returning to the WNBA, this time as an assistant coach. The New York Liberty announced this morning that Donovan, who grew up across the river in New Jersey as a fan of the New York Knicks, will join Pat Coyle's coaching staff for the 2009 season.

"It is very exciting to have the opportunity to return to the east coast and join the Liberty family," Donovan said in the team's release. "Since the league’s inception, I have been impressed with how well this organization has been run and I look forward to assisting Pat in putting the most prepared and competitive team on the floor each night."

Donovan will make her return to Seattle with the Liberty on Aug. 8.

Spartak Falls Short

Since signing Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi before the 2006-07 European season (and adding Lauren Jackson in time for the Russian Superleague Playoffs), Spartak Moscow Region had won basically every critical game the franchise played en route to three Euroleague championships and back-to-back Superleague titles. That streak finally came to an end Tuesday, when UMMC Ekaterinburg defeated Spartak 70-68 in the deciding Game 3 of their series with the Superleague championship on the line.

Predictably, it wasn't easy for Ekaterinburg despite home-court advantage. UMMC built up a 19-point halftime lead only to give it almost all back in the third quarter. Spartak took the lead early in the fourth period, and from there a defensive battle was on. For more than five minutes, neither team made a field goal, with Sylvia Fowles' free throw with 1:40 left tying the score. The teams traded three straight turnovers, followed by a Bird miss, to remain level.

Ekaterinburg finally broke through with less than a second to play. Sandrine Gruda rebounded an Agnieszka Bibrzycka miss from beyond the three-point line and fed Biba, who scored with 0.9 seconds on the clock. Bird's desperation pass was intercepted by Svetlana Abrosimova, and Ekaterinburg had the crown.

In a game marked by strong defense, Jackson was the only player to shoot the ball well from the perimeter. Four of her five field goals were three-pointers, and she finished with 14 points. Taurasi's 17 led Spartak, which missed its leader when she fouled out with 4:25 to play. Bird scored nine points, grabbed six rebounds and handed out four assists.

Maria Stepanova powered Ekaterinburg with 18 points and 12 rebounds, shooting 8-for-14 from the field. Spartak's defense kept Cappie Pondexter (10 points on 3-of-13 shooting) quiet, but Bibrzycka stepped up to score 17 points and shoot 8-of-14.

With the season over, Bird will be headed back to the U.S. for some quick time off before reporting to the Storm's training camp. Jackson gets to head home to Australia, having indicated her plans to discuss where to play the 2009 season with her parents before making a final decision.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Spartak Squares Russian Finals

The Russian Superleague Finals are headed to a deciding Game 3 after Spartak evened the series at one game apiece with a commanding 86-67 home victory in Saturday's Game 2. Powered by hot shooting, Spartak jumped out to a 26-11 lead after one quarter, had a 21-point advantage at the half and cruised from there.

Sue Bird was the ringleader of an offense that saw Spartak knock down 11 three-pointers at a 45.8-percent clip. Bird was 4-of-7 from three herself, scoring 18 points and handing out five assists. Diana Taurasi, bouncing back from a rough Game 1, had 20 points, six boards and four assists. Lauren Jackson added 15 more points.

The contrast was especially obvious beyond the arc, where UMMC Ekaterinburg came up empty in 13 tries. Spartak shut down Ekaterinburg's guards. Cappie Pondexter missed six of seven shot attempts, Deanna Nolan eight of 10. They combined for 11 points. Asjha Jones, who scored 16 off the bench on 11 shots, was the only UMMC player to get anything going.

The series returns to Ekaterinburg for the rubber match not only of this series but also for major competitions. UMMC won the Cup of Russia single-game tournament, while Spartak toppled Ekaterinburg en route to winning the Euroleague Final Four. Game 3 promises another thriller.

The Russian Superleague featured three dominant teams, and that was demonstrated in the consolation series, where Dynamo Moscow was outclassed by a resurgent CSKA Moscow squad. CSKA earned the sweep today with a 112-69 win. Janell Burse aquitted herself nicely with 17 points and five rebounds, making 13 free throws in 16 attempts. However, CSKA simply had too much depth.

In Italy, semifinals are underway. Game 1 saw Club Atletico Faenza pull off a 67-65 upset win over Cras Basket Taranto. Taranto scored well, including 14 points for Suzy Batkovic, but could not get enough stops. Faenza shot a sizzling 72.2 percent on two-point shots. Game 2 - a must-win for Taranto - will be played later today.

The Spanish 5th-8th place series culminated in an Ibiza-PDV sweep of Joventut Mariana. Ibiza relied on another dominant performance from Sancho Lyttle to earn a spot in EuroCup for next season. Lyttle scored 40 points on 17-of-20 shooting, grabbing 11 rebounds. The Storm's Shannon Johnson added 16 points on 7-for-14 shooting.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

O'Neill to Miss Camp: Your Reaction

Aaron Last/Storm Photos

It's a sad day in the Storm offices, with the news that Kristen O'Neill will not be attending training camp after suffering a knee injury overseas which would prevent her from being 100 percent in camp. If you haven't already, check out my feature where O'Neill explains the reasoning behind her decision, primarily based in giving another player the opportunity she had last year to come to training camp and try to make the roster.

Naturally, as a Seattle-area native and a product of the University of Washington, O'Neill has been a big-time fan favorite dating back to last year's training camp. If you'd like to share your thoughts on having O'Neill on the roster and your encouragement going forward, please do so in the comments here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

UMMC Takes Game 1

A thrilling finish to Game 1 of the Russian Superleague Finals this morning in Ekaterinburg. Down seven going to the fourth after Spartak won the third period 24-8, the hosts rallied to take the lead on an Asjha Jones score with 1:43 to play. Sylvia Fowles tied it with 13 seconds left, setting up Cappie Pondexter's heroics. The UMMC Ekaterinburg guard knocked down the go-ahead jumper with four ticks on the clock, and it proved the game-winner when her WNBA teammate Diana Taurasi missed a three at the buzzer. Ekaterinburg took a 1-0 lead in the series with the 61-59 victory.

The game was slow-paced and defensive-oriented. Spartak shot just 39.0 percent from the field. Taurasi missed all nine of her three-point attempts and was 3-of-18 from the field. Sue Bird (five points, 2-of-8 shooting) and Lauren Jackson (seven points, 3-of-8) were both also held in check by Ekaterinburg's defense. The lone Spartak star to come through on offense was Fowles, who scored 18 points and pulled down eight rebounds.

UMMC relied heavily on the duo of Pondexter, who scored 18 points, and Sandrine Gruda. The Connecticut Sun post had 22 points, shooting 10-of-16 from the field.

The series now shifts to Vidnoe for Game 2 on Saturday. Spartak needs a win to keep its hopes of a third straight Russian Superleague Championship alive, while Ekaterinburg will be going for the sweep.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Spartak Reaches Russian Finals

Saturday's deciding Game 3 of the Russian Superleague Semifinal series between Spartak and CSKA Moscow proved anticlimactic. Spartak finished the first half on a 16-3 run to take a 13-point advantage to the break and was never threatened thereafter in a comfortable 74-58 victory.

Spartak shined at the defensive end, holding CSKA to 36.1 percent shooting. Becky Hammon was held to five points on 2-for-8 shooting, while Ilona Korstin was 2-of-10 from the field. Lauren Jackson and Tatiana Schegoleva scored 16 points apiece to pace Spartak, Jackson shooting 6-of-7 from the field and Schegovela 6-for-9. Jackson added six rebounds in a strong 24-minute effort. Sue Bird had five points and five assists.

According to the RebKell reports, Jackson was so hot she literally shot the lights out. With the game already decided and the lights unwilling to return, the final moments of the game were apparently played in darkness.

Spartak, looking for a third straight Russian championship, will be the underdog in the best-of-three final series against UMMC Ekaterinburg. Game 1 will be played tomorrow in Ekaterinburg, with Spartak hosting Game 2 Saturday. If necessary, Game 2 will take place next Tuesday back in Ekaterinburg.

In Spain, the 5th-8th Playoffs kicked off over the weekend, with Ibiza-PDV earning an 89-71 Game 1 victory at Joventut Mariana. Shannon Johnson scored 27 points, but ended up overshadowed by a monster effort from Sancho Lyttle - 29 points and 21 rebounds. Ibiza outscored Joventut 24-10 in the fourth quarter to break open a tight game. Ibiza returns home to go for the sweep in Thursday's Game 2.

Before the French LFB moves into the postseason, Sunday marked the semifinals of the Coupe de France tournament. Tarbes reached the championship game with a 68-57 win over Aix-en-Provence (.pdf). Tanisha Wright had 16 points and five assists, while Isabelle Yacoubou scored 22 and had 19 boards.

Lastly this weekend, handed out 2008-09 EuroCup awards and honored Storm centers Janell Burse and Suzy Batkovic. Batkovic was picked to the All-EuroCup First Team at center, narrowly beating out Burse, who earned Second Team honors. Batkovic also made the "All-Import Team" for her work leading Cras Basket Taranto to the EuroCup Finals. (HT: StormFans from RebKell)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Taranto Sweeps Onward

Suzy Batkovic's Cras Basket Taranto squad completed a two-game sweep of its LegA Femminile quarterfinal series with Thursday's 68-57 win over Pool Comense. Foul trouble limited Batkovic to 20 minutes, though she still packed 11 points and seven boards into that span. Megan Mahoney added 14 as a balanced Taranto scoring attack overcame 17 points from Comense's Brooke Smith.

Meanwhile, they're just wrapping up the regular season in France. On Wednesday, Tarbes and Tanisha Wright met Bourges to decide the regular-season title. With the benefit of home-court advantage, Bourges pulled out the narrow 63-60 win. (.pdf) Wright can say she did everything she could to get her team the win. She scored 31 points on 13-of-26 shooting, grabbed 11 rebounds and handed out three assists. However, three players combined for 53 of Tarbes' 60 points as the rest of the team struggled. Seven Bourges players scored at least five points, and the superior depth made the slight difference.

Cash at the White House

During Tuesday's Twitterview, Storm forward Swin Cash described her experience at the White House for Monday's annual Easter Egg Roll. "I also had a wonderful time reading a story to the kids," Cash wrote. Now that video is online thanks to the YouTube channel:

(HT: WNBA Twitter feed)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Storm Aids Women's Basketball in Niger

Storm Director of Communications and Community Relations Teresa Wippel explains how the Storm connected with the Peace Corps to help out a budding group of female basketball players in the country of Niger.

The letter came to Storm headquarters from Peace Corps volunteer and Oregon native Mariah Cosand: Would the Storm be willing to donate basketballs and practice uniforms or T-shirts to two dozen young women between the ages of 15-24 playing basketball in the town of Maradi, in the West African nation of Niger?

Cosand explained that she was assisting a Peace Corps employee named Ado, who had established a high school girls’ basketball team in Maradi. "Niger is a predominately Muslim country and due to the religious and cultural norms that currently exist in this part of the world, as well as the extreme poverty, girls' sports are virtually nonexistent," Cosand wrote. "These girls practice every day after school and raise money to travel every few months to one of the handful of other cities in Niger that also have girls’ basketball teams."

The Storm put together two large boxes of clothing and basketballs, and sent it to Niger earlier this year. Since Cosand had just ended her Peace Corps service, the project was taken over by another volunteer - Sarah Turner of Kansas City, Mo. A former high school basketball player and an avid WNBA fan, Turner used the Storm donations for a basketball camp that the older players ran for younger girls in Maradi.

“The girls that came were a bit younger (13,14,15) and had never played before, so we did a lot of basic shooting, dribbling, and passing drills,” said Turner, whose volunteer service when she is not coaching basketball focuses on animal husbandry, including work with women's groups who buy and sell animals as an income-generating activity. “The older girls taught and ran the drills. They spoke to the girls about the importance of continuing education beyond high school and what they expected their role to be as an educated female in the society of a city. They also talked about AIDS prevention.”

The older players have “the skill level of an average high school team,” Turner said. They have finished high school and are in professional school, studying to be nurses and teachers, plus one who is taking the police exam.

“As female Peace Corps volunteers from a country that has an entirely different view of women, we sometimes find that ways to connect with women here are hard to find as our life experiences and expectations are very different,” Turner noted. “I was not expecting, for that reason, for a way to connect with them to occur via sports, but the fact that it happened speaks to worldwide presence and importance of sports for women.

“Women who play basketball in Maradi all see the benefits of the opportunity and have parents who support them,” Turner continued. “They have seen mostly games on television, whether live or taped, and really enjoy them. The only indoor gym, like the ones they see on television, is in the capital city of Niamey and so they always hope to play there rather than on our outdoor court in Maradi.

“Twice a year, there is a country-wide tournament in Niamey that draws about six girls’ teams,” Turner said. “The championship game is played in that indoor area so that is something that they play hard to achieve, besides wanting to get bragging rights.”

“During the past week, we have been trying to teach the girls about the role of sports in women’s lives,” she added. “It is not really applicable to talk to them about considering sports as a career option because they are no professional sports for women here. We can teach and remind them, however, about the physical and mental health benefits as well as the life skills that can be learned and honed such as cooperation, sportsmanship, leadership and self-confidence.”

Turner concluded: “We thank you, Seattle Storm, for your contribution to our young girls of Maradi and for your cooperation with Peace Corps. “We appreciate it very much and good luck in your upcoming season!!”

Members of the team hold up signs thanking the Storm in English, French and native language Hausa. (All photos courtesy Sarah Turner)

Turner poses with members of the team in their new Storm gear.

Coach Ado takes everything in from the sidelines.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Spartak Forces Game 3

Staring down potential early elimination from the Russian Superleague Playoffs, Spartak came through with a sizzling offensive performance Wednesday to force a deciding Game 3 on Saturday. Spartak shot 57.4 percent from the field in a 101-80 road win over CSKA Moscow. The game was tight at halftime, with Spartak leading by one point, but they owned the second half 55-35.

Diana Taurasi powered the offensive explosion with 29 points on 11-of-18 shooting. Lauren Jackson added 20 while hitting nine of 15 shots, and Tatiana Schegoleva chipped in 18. Sue Bird finished with 11 points, five rebounds and four assists. Ann Wauters, who scored 26 and grabbed 12 rebounds, was the primary offensive threat for CSKA.

The teams will be back in Vidnoe for a winner-take-all Game 3 on Saturday. The victor will face UMMC Ekaterinburg, which completed a two-game sweep of Dynamo Moscow with Wednesday's 71-62 road triumph. Dynamo led by as many as 14 in the first half after holding Ekaterinburg to seven first-quarter points, but again the game turned after halftime, Ekaterinburg outscoring Dynamo 45-27 to win going away.

Janell Burse had 11 points and seven rebounds for Dynamo in the loss. She and go-to players Anete Jekabsone-Zogota, Marina Kuzina and Belinda Snell combined for 53 of Dynamo's 62 points as the supporting cast failed to offer much scoring. By contrast, Ekaterinburg had seven players score at least six points, led by 16 and 12 boards from Sandrine Gruda.

Dance Troupe Auditions Kick Off

On Tuesday evening, 65 young dancers gathered at the Furtado Center, the Storm’s official practice facility, to try out for the 2009 Storm Dance Troupe. Over the course of the three-hour session, the kids - ages 5-15 - learned a short routine to Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” and then performed for the panel of judges consisting of Dance Troupe Manager Sheena Shive, members of the Storm front office, and frequent Storm in-arena host Shellie Hart of KUBE 93’s Old Skool Lunch.

The talent among this group of dancers is sure to give Storm fans the best Troupe KeyArena has seen in the Storm’s 10-year history. At the end of the night, 41 dancers were asked to return Thursday night for the second round of auditions. Stay tuned for more updates on this year’s Dance Troupe selection.

The third and final round of auditions takes place this Saturday at the Alderwood Mall Food Court from 12-3 p.m. and is open to the public! We invite you to check out the action and cheer on the finalists.
- Kelly Nigh

Photos from Tuesday night:

The dancers listen to instructions ...

... then it was time to learn the routine.

The group of dancers poses for a photo at the end of the evening with Hart ...

before taking a silly picture.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Gearlds, Athinaikos Finish Unbeaten

Congrats to Katie Gearlds. The Storm forward and her Athinaikos teammates completed a perfect 26-0 season in Greek A1 League play by beating Panathinaikos 78-68 over the weekend. Gearlds went out in style, scoring a game-high 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting. She added six rebounds and five assists as well.

Athinaikos had previously secured the Greek title, holding a two-game lead on second-place Esperides Ravenna - both of whose losses came to Athinaikos. According to a translation of the Athinaikos Web site, "The time of the coronation had everything: Fireworks, confetti, champagne, "OLE", clapping and emotion." I'm sure Gearlds will have more details in a wrap-up of her overseas blog at some point in the near future.

While the season winds down, the action is just heating up in the Russian Superleague Playoffs. Semifinals started Sunday with CSKA Moscow surprising Spartak in Vidnoe, 84-70. Looking to reverse a disappointing season, CSKA was on fire offensively, shooting 58 percent from the field and from downtown. Ann Wauters had 19 points and 10 boards to lead five players in double-figures. None of Spartak's stars had a big game. Sue Bird contributed six points and seven assists, while Lauren Jackson finished with 10 points. Euroleague Final Four hero Diana Taurasi was limited to 6-of-15 from the field, scoring 16 points.

Dynamo Moscow had an even rougher time of it in Game 1 at UMMC Ekaterinburg. Top-seeded Ekaterinburg rolled up 95 points, with Penny Taylor scoring 19 on cool 9-of-11 shooting. Janell Burse had 13 points and seven boards, outplaying Maria Stepanova, but did not get enough help. Belinda Snell (19) was the only Dynamo player to score double-figures with Anete Jekabsone-Zogota out of the lineup.

Playoffs started today in Italy, with Cras Basket Taranto blowing out Pool Comense 81-46 in Game 1. Suzy Batkovic scored 11 points, one of five Taranto players in double figures. Megan Mahoney paced Taranto with 25 points on 7-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc. Batkovic and company will go on the road for Tuesday's Game 2 looking for a sweep.

This was the final weekend of the regular season in Spain. With a 69-63 loss to Olesa-Espanyol, Ibiza-PDV finished 14-12 and in seventh place. Shannon Johnson had four points in the loss, shooting 2-for-10 from the field in a tough outing. Ibiza will now take on Joventut Mariana in the 5th-8th playoffs (with EuroCup spots on the line for winners of these matchups). The series start on Saturday.

With Saturday's 86-62 win over Clermont-Farrand (.pdf), Tarbes set up a showdown with traditional power Bourges on Wednesday with the regular-season LFB title on the line. Both teams are 24-1. On Saturday, Tarbes needed Tanisha Wright for just 18 minutes in the lopsided victory. She had four points and three assists.

Lastly, a note from Ireland, where her UL Aughnish squad passes along that the Storm's Kristen O'Neill was awarded "Overseas Player of the Year." O'Neill's top competition for the award might have been Mel Thomas, who will join her in training camp with the Storm.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Heartbreaking Loss for Taranto

Lost in the excitement of yesterday's WNBA Draft was a wild finish to the EuroCup. Cras Basket Taranto traveled to Turkey with a 12-point aggregate leading entering yesterday's second leg at Galatasaray. The home team controlled the game much of the way, with the result being that while the scoreboard showed a comfortable Galatasaray lead, in reality the series was tight.

Two free throws by Galatasaray's Marina Kress made it 69-57 with 34 seconds left to play, meaning the two teams were tied in aggregate scoring. After the teams traded empty possessions with an Audret Sauret-Gillespie turnover and a Seimone Augustus miss, they headed to overtime. Galatasaray dominated the extra session, outscoring Taranto 13-4. The final aggregate margin was 137-128.

Suzy Batkovic was one of three Taranto players to score double-figures, finishing with 11 points on 5-of-15 shooting. Megan Mahoney led Taranto with 20 points, but Galatasaray's duo of Sophia Young (27 points) and Augustus (23) was too much to overcome and Taranto will have to settle for second in EuroCup.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cash Talks Perfection on ESPN

As the Connecticut Huskies look to complete a perfect 39-0 season by beating Louisville in tonight's NCAA title game, few people have a better idea of what they are facing than Storm forward Swin Cash. In 2001-02, Cash and Storm point guard Sue Bird were two of the four amazing seniors on the UConn team that went 39-0 before producing four of the first six picks in that year's WNBA Draft, including No. 1 overall selection Bird.

Cash joined ESPN's First Take this morning to discuss this year's Connecticut squad and the question that, with a win tonight, we can begin debating - which undefeated UConn team is the best? The Huskies also went 35-0 in 1994-95, led by Rebecca Lobo. Naturally, Cash admitted she's biased in picking her 2001-02 team, which featured four eventual WNBA All-Stars. This year's group has made things interesting by winning all 38 games by double-digits. They'll go for No. 39 on ESPN tonight at 5:30 p.m.

You can watch the entire segment with Cash on

Monday, April 6, 2009

Draft Week Begins; Championship Game Set

We're now less than 72 hours away from the 2009 WNBA Draft. Anticipation seems to build a little slower than with the NBA equivalent because attention is still focused on the Final Four. Last night's action delivered one classic semifinal and one that was, um, not classic. UConn looks unstoppable en route to a perfect season that has yet to see the Huskies even be challenged. The last obstacle in their way will be Louisville, which already lost twice to UConn, including a lopsided defeat in the Big East Tournament title game.

Back then, the Cardinals looked nothing like the confident group that has rallied behind Angel McCoughtry and "brutally honest" Head Coach Jeff Walz to knock off a pair of No. 1 seeds, first Maryland and now Oklahoma. I picked Louisville to reach the Final Four, but I did not expect them to be able to contain Courtney Paris. I watched the first half of the game before missing the Cardinals' second-half comeback until seeing the climactic final minute. When I tuned back in and saw the score with Louisville leading, I was stunned.

McCoughtry has taken glee in disproving doubters at every stage ofLouisville's run, and there will be plenty of them going into tomorrow's national championship game on ESPN (including me), so there will be no shortage of motivation in trying to do the impossible and knock off UConn.

If you haven't gotten a chance to watch McCoughtry play, this is your last chance to do so before she's taken in Thursday's WNBA Draft, possibly with the top overall pick. Connecticut's Renee Montgomery is also a potential top-five pick, while Louisville forward Candyce Bingham may go in the second or third round.

In other draft news, the WNBA announced last week the 15 players who have been invited to attend the draft in Secaucus.'s Brian Martin also posted his mock first round, which has the Storm taking Duke center Chante Black. Black is one of the five centers featured in today's final position breakdown on

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Spartak Tops Again in Euroleague

The remarkable Euroleague run of Spartak Moscow Region continues. With an 85-70 triumph Sunday over host Halcon Avenida in the title game of the Euroleague Final Four, Spartak earned its third consecutive Euroleague Championship.

Playing against a raucous home crowd that helped Avenida defeat MKB Euroleasing Sopron in Friday's semifinals, Spartak quieted the fans by taking control of the game in the second quarter and never letting go. Up one after one quarter, Spartak opened up a 12-point advantage by halftime and never allowed the hosts to get within double-digits in the second half, leading by as many as 21 points.

While Diana Taurasi was voted Final Four MVP after her second consecutive 30-plus-point effort, Sue Bird was equally as valuable for Spartak in the two wins in Salamanca. Bird had a double-double in the final, scoring 13 points, handing out 10 assists and grabbing six rebounds while going the full 40 minutes. Despite cold shooting, Lauren Jackson contributed 13 points and five rebounds.

Avenida, which features just two WNBA regulars (forward Le'Coe Willingham, who scored a team-high 25 points, and center Michelle Snow) simply could not match Spartak's amazing array of talent.

For Bird, it's a third consecutive Euroleague crown to go along with her dizzying array of titles (two NCAA Championships at UConn, two Olympic gold medals and, of course, the 2004 WNBA championship). Jackson wins her second straight Euroleague title, having joined Spartak just after the team won the 2007 Euroleague Championship.

Now, Spartak sets its sights on winning the Russian Superleague for a third straight time. Despite their Euroleague triumph, that is anything but a certainty. Next weekend, Spartak begins a semifinal series against talented CSKA Moscow, led by Becky Hammon. Should Spartak advance, the likely opponent in the Superleague Finals would be Cup of Russia champions UMMC Ekaterinburg, who challenged Spartak in Friday's semifinal matchup before settling for third place in Euroleague and would have home court in the series.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spartak Back in Final Four Championship

Spartak Moscow Region will play for its third straight Euroleague Championship on Sunday after defeating Russian rival UMMC Ekaterinburg in this morning's semifinal matchup, 83-74. Diana Taurasi scored a game-high 33 points, but Spartak would not have won without timely scoring from Sue Bird. The Storm's point guard finished with 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting, handing out four assists.

Spartak led by most of the way and threatened to blow things open in the third quarter, but behind a big effort from Agnieszka Bibrzycka (23 points on 8-of-16 shooting), Ekaterinburg managed to keep things close through the fourth quarter. They trailed by just one with seven minutes to play when Bird's three-pointer kicked off a 12-2 run that effectively ended the game.

Taurasi was impossible to stop much of the game, hitting difficult shots and getting to the rim off the dribble. On the other side, the dribble penetration of Ekaterinburg guards Deanna Nolan and Cappie Pondexter challenged Spartak's defense, but UMMC was hurt by the lack of a true point guard, settling too often for contested shots from the perimeter. Nolan and Pondexter both shot 3-for-11 from the field.

Spartak got scoring from just five players, but with four of them in double-figures (including 11 for Lauren Jackson, who knocked down a trio of three-pointers) that was enough.

The win was an important statement for Spartak, which lost to Ekaterinburg in the finals of the Russian Cup and lost to them in the Russian Superleague regular season, giving Ekaterinburg the top seed in the playoffs.

Spartak's opponent in the final will be determined by today's second semifinal, pitting Final Four host Halcon Avenida (Spain) against MKB Euroleasing Sopron (Hungary). The winner will face Spartak Sunday in the wee hours of the morning Seattle time.

The Euroleague Final Four is not the only overseas playoff competition involving Storm players. Yesterday was also the first game of the two-game aggregate EuroCup Finals pitting Suzy Batkovic's Cras Baket Taranato squad against Turkish side Galatasaray. On the road, Galatasaray actually led 46-38 midway through the third quarter. From there on out, Taranto outscored Galatasaray 29-9 to win going away, 67-55.

Batkovic led Taranto with 15 points and nine rebounds, shooting 5-of-10 from the field and adding three blocks. Batkovic also helped her team stifle San Antonio All-Star Sophia Young, who was limited to nine points and six turnovers in 38 minutes.

The deciding second game of the aggregate series will be played next Thursday in Turkey. If Taranto wins or loses by fewer than 12 points, it will reign as EuroCup champions.

In Turkey, a hard-fought 78-69 loss to Fenerbahce eliminated Ted Kayseri Koleji from the TBBL Playoffs. While it did not translate into a win, Ashley Robinson continued to play aggressive basketball, scoring 19 points and grabbing six rebounds.