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.

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