FIBA EuroLeague Women: Castors Mithra Braine (BEL) vs. Nadezhda Orenburg (RUS), played at the Spiroudome in Charleroi, Belgium on Nov. 28th, 2018

When my youngest son and I arrived at the Spiroudome on the evening of the 28th Nov., the scoreboard already showed 9-12 for the Russian team of Nadezhda Orenburg against Castors Braine in a FIBA EuroLeague Women's Group A regular season game. In front of a sparse attendance, Castors Braine remained in the race and performed well despite the limited number of players fit and able to play that evening. Belgian international player Antonia Delaere, British center Abby Rendle, young Russian power forward Albina Razheva and Estonia's experienced guard Merike Anderson did not play for the Castors while Kenyan-Canadian power forward Adut Bulgak did not wear the Nadezhda outfit but stood behind her team's bench to support her mates that night.

We quickly understood that Karlie Samuelson on the Castors' side and Erica Wheeler for Nadezhda Orenburg had been pretty efficient offensively in the first minutes of their fourth game in the European women basketball clubs'top competition. Although Castors' center Ruth Hamblin looked out of breath when we arrived, the Belgian side managed to stay close mainly thanks to the hard work of Celeste Trahan-Davis as well as the engagement of Karlie Samuelson and Emmanuella Mayombo. WNBA star Brionna Jones (she plays for the Connecticut Sun in the summer) was well present in all sectors of the game for the visitors. The huge difference of budget between the Russian club and the Belgian one did not translate into a large gap at the end of the first quarter. The scoreboard displayed 19-21 in favour of the ladies from Orenburg but it left their Spanish coach Victor Lapeña wanting more.

The Belgian squad remained competitive even though a lack of rotation was well perceived by the observers present in Charleroi, Belgium. Castors Braine took the lead at 24-21 and 26-23 early in the second quarter, forcing Lapeña to boost his team. The Orenburg players' reaction came via the two Russian players Viktoriia Medvedeva (who won the EuroLeague Women title with Dynamo Kursk of Russia in 2017) and Ekaterina Fedorenkova (who won two FIBA EuroCup titles in a row with Dynamo Moscow in 2013 and 2014 and is a member of the Russian national team) as well as via their other key players Brionna Jones from the USA and Sandra Ygueravide from Spain. The battle in the paint between Brionna Jones for Nadezhda Orenburg and Ruth Hamblin for Castors Braine was worth watching. Jones made the second of two free throws to make 26-32 for the Russian squad with 4'43" remaining in the first half. Castors' Head Coach Pascal Angilis multiplied the substitions in order not to get most of his seven players exhausted. Both teams missed many shots and it remained a 6-point game at the half despite efforts by Karlie Samuelson for Castors and Erica Wheeler for Orenburg: 28-34.

After 30-38, Castors Braine became quite efficient in offense. Celeste Trahan-Davis and Manon Grzesinski showed the way to the basket to their Castors mates and managed to reduce the gap (37-40). Orenburg's center Brionna Jones kept impressing the small crowd that gathered at the Spiroudome that evening. Castors Braine's guards Emmanuella Mayombo and Mariona Ortiz hit nice shots and gave a new lead to their team at 47-44. Castors' US center Ruth Hamblin played tough in defense (6 block shots) and eventually looked very efficient in the paint on offense too. Castors managed to get on top by a margin of 6 points at the end of the third quarter (55-49).

Hamblin and her mates remained very efficient on both ends of the court and even recorded a 12-point advantage (65-53) on a beautiful 2-point jump shot made by British international player Karlie Samuelson. Viktoriia Medvedeva then hit two three-pointers in a row. She put her Russian team back on the right track. Nadezhda Orenburg's American point guard Erica Wheeler (who also plays for Indiana Fever in the WNBA during the summertime) suddenly started her show and, together with her mate Brionna Jones, brought her team back into the game at 69-69 with 1'01" remaining on the clock. Erica Wheeler quickly ran down the court and then made a pretty layup to offer Orenburg the lead at 69-71. A last sloppy play by the Castors left a bitter taste in the local fans' mouth. Their favorite team finally lost this thrilling game by a small margin (69-71) but the Castors' performance with only seven players available against Nadezhda Orenburg, a Russian powerhouse, gave them some hope for the next appointments in the FIBA EuroLeague Women 2018-19.
Special thanks to "basketinbelgium.be" for having offered a free pass to attend and enjoy this pretty good women's basketball game.

Score evolution: 19-21, 28-34, 55-49 and 69-71.

Best scorers:
Castors: Sien Devliegher 0, Mariona Ortiz 10, Celeste Trahan-Davis 15, Manon Grzesinski 2, Ruth Hamblin 13, Karlie Samuelson 13, Emmanuella Mayombo 16.
Nadezhda: Ekaterina Fedorenkova 0, Anastasia Shilova 2, Kseniia Tikhonenko 0, Sandra Ygueravide 9, Erica Wheeler 22, Zhosselina Maiga 2, Brionna Jones 24, Viktoriia Medvedeva 12.

Pictures: Bert Larsimont; The Diamondback, by Kyle Stackpole and Getty Images, by Justin Casterline


A look back with Hall of Famer Katie Smith at Team USA's success and the great Belgian Cats' run in the FIBA World Cup 2018

Because of professional commitments, I did not get the opportunity to travel to Tenerife for covering or attending the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup last September.
It was nevertheless an honour and a great chance for me to closely follow the world's women basketball top competition through the media and have a direct feedback from Women's Basketball Hall of Famer Katie Smith via the social networks during the tourney!
I have known Katie for quite some years now. Back in 1988-89, I spent a full year in Southeastern Ohio and attended class at Logan High School where Katie Smith already performed very well in sports like basketball (of course), volleyball and track. Katie, always in quest for perfection, has always been a true athlete and a role model wherever she has played sports!
As a member of the US women's senior national team, Smith helped the USA earn the gold medals in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games as well as in the 1998 and 2002 World Championships. Katie Smith's career highlights and awards include: Big Ten Player of the Year with the Ohio State Buckeyes (1996), 2 ABL titles (1997, 1998), 2 WNBA championship titles (2006, 2008), WNBA Finals MVP (2008), twice in the All-WNBA First Team (2001, 2003), 7 WNBA All-Star selections (2000-2003, 2005, 2006, 2009), WNBA scoring champion (2001), WNBA's All-Decade Team (2006), WNBA's Top 15 Players of All Time (2011). Katie Smith knows basketball for sure!
Smith, the current Head Coach of the WNBA franchise New York Liberty, travelled to the Canary Islands and attended the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2018 held in San Cristobal de La Laguna at the end of September. It all started on Friday Sep. 28th, 2018... Team USA had just defeated Nigeria (71-40 as final score) despite a slow start and qualified for the Worlds' semi-finals... Then, Katie sent me a message via Facebook. She added a nice picture of the Belgian Cats standing and singing during the national anthem before the start of the Belgium vs. France quarter-final rivalry played at the Santiago Martin Arena.
"Getting ready to watch your ladies!", she wrote.

Following some of the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup action and getting Katie Smith's comments about the FAN-tastic performance of the Belgian Cats during the tournament actually turned into a big chance and a real honour that I want to share with you too. I watched the end of the second quarter as well as the full second half of the Begian Cats' quarter-final game against Les Bleues on TV (broadcast on Belgium's french-speaking public television with comments by sports journalist Pierre Robert and former Belgian Cats' Head Coach Daniel Goethals). There was something in the air that evening... France quickly lost the track of the game. The French squad was already 22 points behind at the break (53-31) and never looked able to react, even if in the middle of the third quarter the Belgian players showed some signs of tiredness and therefore made wrong choices in transition or in offense. Just like in the game won with a 9-point margin on a buzzer beater against Spain on Sep. 25th, which allowed Belgium to directly qualify for the quarter-finals in this competition, Philip Mestdagh coached perfectly well again during the game against France. He made some rotations to let some of his ladies recover and eventually secure the win (86-65) over Les Bleues. This tremendous performance allowed the Cats to play Team USA in the semis!
After the Belgium vs. France game, Katie got back to me with the following message about the Cats, a short message actually ended with a winking face emoji:
"They played so well but not rooting for them tomorrow".
And yes indeed, the Cats had played so well!
The last three-pointer from very long range hit by the Cats' playmaker Marjorie Carpreaux on the buzzer at the end of the game against France summarized well how confident the Belgian women's national team had been lately. My youngest teenage son who watched and enjoyed the game with me that night shouted "Excellent!", sounding a little bit like the heroes of the good old American movie "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" -- only some air guitar and Eddie Van Halen's music were missing --, when Carpreaux sealed the final score on that three-pointer!
Belgian star Emma Meesseman, about whom I had already highlighted back in 2013 her full potential when she joined the Washington Mystics in the WNBA (read the following article published in the former US women's basketball webzine Full Court Press: http://www.fullcourt.com/wnba/23146/making-sense-mystics-meesseman-mystery-pick), proved again in the game against France that she could be a candidate for the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2018 All-Star Five. It will be hard to get the tourney's MVP honour since Aussie player Elizabeth Cambage (Australia gave no chance to China in the quarter-final: 83-42) or US superstars Diana Taurasi and Breanna Stewart have also been key players for their own teams during the whole competition!
Spain was the last team to reach the semis after getting rid of Canada 53-68 on Sep. 28th.

On the next morning, the Belgian daily newspaper L'Avenir for example had a two-page coverage of the Belgian Cats' new accomplished feat and most of the national or local media suddenly decided to cover the event. How could I have ever imagined 8 years ago, when I covered the 2010 FIBA World Championship for Women at the KV Arena in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic for eurobasket.com (see https://www.eurobasket.com/World-Cup/news/204976/USA-wins-the-Gold-in-Karlovy-Vary?Women=1) and saw Team USA already being crowned, that my country's women national team would reach the semi-finals of a FIBA World Cup against the strongest team in the world one day? The USA, with their trio Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Tina Charles still well present in the 2018 squad, beat the Czech Republic in the final championship game at the KV Arena in 2010. And playing Team USA on Saturday, Sep. 29th, 2018 at the semi-final stage of the Women's Basketball World Cup 2018 seemed a little bit surrealistic for the Cats indeed. Surrealistic like Belgium can truly be... For Belgian basketball observers, officials, players and fans, the USA vs. Belgium game has been perceived like a (very early and unexpected) Christmas gift. I can tell you that many friends, relatives and sport lovers I met on that day often talked to me about the scheduled Belgian Cats' game against Team USA. Several of them asked me what I thought about the US squad? I kept telling them: "C'est une montagne!" But honestly, I knew that the Belgian Cats would do everything to challenge their opponents in the semi-final.
A few minutes before the USA vs. Belgium game, Katie Smith posted a video of Team USA's presentation with a note saying "Semi's about to get started... USA vs Belgium #fibawcc". We both enjoyed every second of it, either in Tenerife or in Sart-Eustache, Belgium! It felt almost unreal when, at half-time, Belgium was only one point behind Team USA (39-40). My family and friends were also watching and thrilled about the way the Belgian Cats had played in the first half of the World Cup semi-final. The US players looked stressed in the first twenty minutes of the contest. The Cats remained in the race until the scoreboard showed 52-52. WNBA superstar Diana Taurasi then got on fire and hit 3 three-pointers in a row (she nailed 5 of them in the game) to show the way to her very physical American mates. The US national team of Coach Dawn Staley digged a gap in the third quarter (57-73). Nevertheless, the Cats managed to avoid a large loss. They finished tied in the last quarter (20-20) and the help of experienced Belgian center Ann Wauters and solid plays by Kyara Linskens or Kim Mestdagh were much needed to reply to the Americans in that last period. The Belgian Cats were eventually defeated 77-93 with honours and, most important of all, Team USA respected them all the way!
Katie Smith reacted again to one of my posts on Facebook and emphasized the fact that the Cats had been great challengers: "They are tough and playing so well!!!".
On the very same evening, the Australian Opals defeated Spain 72-66 and secured their spot in the World Cup final. Elizabeth Cambage combined 33 points, 15 rebounds and 4 blocks against La Roja to lead Australia to the championship game. The Cats and the Spaniards would still have one more game to play for bronze on the next Sunday evening while the Opals and the US national team would go for gold!

On the evening of Sep. 30th, the Belgian Cats could not avoid a loss 67-60 against Alba Torrens, Marta Xargay Casademont, Laia Palau and their mates in another thrilling game marked by aggressiveness and physical plays. A revenge and not a remake after the qualifying game against Spain of Tuesday Sep. 25th! In the game for third place against La Roja, Emma Meesseman displayed all her talents again but it was not enough to help the Cats win the contest this time. Spanish star Marta Xargay hit the last shot to fix the score in this game for bronze. I loved the way the Cats played "old school" basketball with great efficiency through the whole competition. The Belgian Cats' coach Philip Mestdagh as well as his assistants Pierre Cornia and Sven Van Camp deserve a standing ovation too. I would also highlight the performance of Julie Allemand during this tournament. She recorded impressive stats in assists, 13 against France in the quarter-final game, 12 against the USA at the next stage and 8 against Spain in the game for bronze. She averaged 8.2 assists per game and was the leader in assists in the tourney.
The Belgian Cats ended the competition in fourth place, with what I would call the chocolate medal around the neck. But we are talking about Belgian chocolate in this case... Since Belgium is also the country of surrealism, Belgian basketball players, staff, fans and observers should relish this fourth place and chocolate medal... Belgium is proud of their Cats and thanks them for the good moments and the Cinderella story they offered during the whole competition!
Another satisfaction: Belgian star Emma Meesseman was selected among the FIBA Women's World Cup All-Star Five together with Diana Taurasi (USA - 12.2 points, 3.7 rebounds per game, 40.7 percent shooting from three-point range), Breanna Stewart (USA - 16.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists per game, 47.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc), Elizabeth Cambage (Australia - 23.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.8 blocks per game) and Astou Ndour (Spain - 14.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.4 blocks per game, 45.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc). Meesseman had 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists per game in the tournament.
Without surprise, Team USA got the final victory and defended well against Cambage and her mates. In the championship game played at the Santiago Martin Arena in San Cristobal de La Laguna, Brittney Griner finished as top scorer with 15 points for Team USA while Breanna Stewart also had 10 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists in the final game. The US team won therefore its third consecutive world title, also punching ticket to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and its tenth FIBA World Cup (or Championship) gold medal all-time: 1953, 1957, 1979, 1986, 1990, 1998, 2002, 2010, 2014 and 2018.
Other FIBA World Cup for Women 2018 awards: Brittney Griner was Player of the Game in the final and Breanna Stewart was MVP of the World Cup!

Ooooh yes... I almost forgot to mention that I got news from the coach of the NY Liberty again on Monday, Oct. 1st, 2018., just one day after the World Cup Final. She dropped me a line with her comments about the Belgian national team's run: "I travelled back to the States all day Sunday. Meesseman played phenomenal and rebounded it really well and well deserved to make Top 5 of tournament. The Cats are skilled and have a great vibe as a team. They work and do well together. Allemand is really good and think Indiana (Fever) has her rights in the WNBA." Thank you for the compliments about the Belgian Cats, Katie!

Pictures: www.theux-basket-2061.be; Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images; Faecebook (Katie Smith and Bert Larsimont)