EuroLeague Final Four: WNBA stars take center stage in title chase

Copper has led Perfumerias Avenida in points, rebounds and overall efficiency this season. (Ivan Terron/Europa Press via Getty Images)

If you are one of the many already suffering from PMMD (Post-March Madness Depression), the basketball gods are here for you. Another Final Four is happening this weekend, and this time it’s at the pro level. Kahleah Copper, reigning WNBA Finals MVP and recently named 2022 EuroLeague MVP, has been putting on a clinic in Europe, averaging 22.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and two assists per game. Now she and the rest of her Spain-based Perfumerias Avenida team are headed to Istanbul for a win-or-go-home final four-style tournament to crown the 2022 EuroLeague champion.

Standing in Avenida’s path are several of Copper’s WNBA colleagues, including the WNBA’s reigning Most Improved Player, Brionna Jones, a dangerously healthy Alyssa Thomas, and fellow 2021 WNBA champion Stefanie Dolson.

For those new to the overseas game, you can think of EuroLeague playoffs sort of like the NCAA’s March Madness. Dispersed throughout the European continent, the 16 EuroLeague teams play a regular season in domestic leagues of their respective countries, similar to how NCAA teams play in their respective conferences. Then at the end of the season, the top teams from the continent compete for the EuroLeague championship, the most competitive title in women’s basketball outside the WNBA.

The intrigue for U.S. fans is that the league is chock-a-block full of WNBA players who pack their bags shortly after their W season ends and fly to locales all over Europe, from Spain to Turkey to Russia, to play professional basketball abroad on contracts typically more lucrative than what they earn in the WNBA.

(Not) speaking of Russia

Russia has long been home to powerhouse teams in European women’s basketball, most recently with UMMC Ekaterinburg. Ekat is a team with plenty of wealth that annually signs several of the biggest names from the WNBA, resulting in the club winning four of the past five EuroLeague Championships. This season, their loaded roster included Jonquel Jones, Emma Meeseman, Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Britney Griner and Breanna Stewart (though Stewart was not able to play the season due to a foot injury).

With an undefeated record, Ekaterinburg appeared well on their way to making it five out of six championships as the playoffs approached. But then war broke out when Russia invaded Ukraine, and EuroLeague officials announced Russian teams were prohibited from competition for the rest of the season. WNBA players inside the country scrambled to return home, while news broke that WNBA superstar Brittney Griner was in Russian police custody, where she remains today.

While canceling the rest of the EuroLeague playoffs would not have benefitted the women’s game or its athletes, the fact the championship is proceeding as business as usual given the absence of Ekaterinburg and the ongoing foreign imprisonment of one of the best players in the world is jarring to say the least.

The race for a new champion

Amid the tragic and unusual circumstances, the top podium is now open for the taking with four evenly matched contenders. Of the teams still standing, only one (USK Praha) has reached the top spot in the past ten years.

Semifinal 1: Perfumerias Avenida (Spain) vs. Sopron Basket (Hungary)

The semifinal Friday features Avenida against Hungarian-based Sopron Basket. Sopron only added Dolson to its roster in late February, and the 6-foot-5 center had limited minutes and low production in the team’s quarterfinal series against France’s BLMA. Of the team’s WNBA players, Gabby Williams, Briann January and Bernadett Hatar have been the driving forces.

Williams was last year’s EuroLeague Defensive Player of the Year and has been a pillar on both ends of the court once again for Sopron. Earning her way onto this season’s All-EuroLeague Second Team, the UConn alum who was traded from the Los Angeles Sparks to the Seattle Storm this offseason has averaged 13.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game in EuroLeague action for Sopron. Point guard Briann January, who will join Williams as a new face in Seattle this year, is leading the team in assists while also contributing 10.5 points per game. One recipient of January’s many dimes is the 6-10 Bernadett Hatar, who’s converting those feeds into 13.6 points per game while also grabbing 8.5 rebounds per contest. Hatar, a 27-year-old Hungarian native, made her WNBA debut last season with the Indiana Fever as the tallest active player in the league, but she played in only seven games before returning home with a season-ending injury. Hatar is once again on a Fever training camp contract and, according to Williams, has made big strides in her game this overseas season.

“Betty has really, really improved her game,” Williams said in a recent interview. “I always tell her she can be like a cheat code in a video game. She is so tall and it’s so easy to get her the ball. A pick and roll with her is automatic, but it is the other things like the IQ she has for the game, her mid-range jump shot. It’s so hard to stop her.”

Avenida will strive to do just that, and they may not be at full force to do it. Katie Lou Samuelson, recently traded from Seattle to L.A. for Williams and a draft pick, hasn’t suited up for Avenida since the team’s Feb. 1 loss to Ekaterinburg. Samuelson said in a recent Instagram post that she was focused “on getting my body healthy and keeping my mind healthy.” Now back with the team and headed to Istanbul, the question remains whether Avenida’s second-leading scorer and best plus/minus performer will be 100 percent at tipoff.

Luckily for Avenida, Karlie Samuelson, who has bounced around a few WNBA rosters without seeing much court time, has been a consistent starter and 3-point shooting weapon for the Spanish club this season. Besting her sharp-shooting sister from behind the arc this season, Karlie Samuelson’s 43.1 percent average from three is seventh-best in the league and came in big during their must-win quarterfinal game against Spar Girona, when she was 5-of-6 from downtown. But even if the elder Samuelson stays hot in Istanbul, Avenida will live or die by Kahleah Copper.

The EuroLeague MVP took some well-deserved time off after leading the Sky to the WNBA championship last fall, but once she arrived in Spain for her inaugural EuroLeague season, her foot never came off the gas. Leading her team in points, rebounds and overall efficiency, she’s been putting up big numbers even while dealing with hardship off the court. After suffering a personal loss in recent weeks, Copper considered going home, but the support of her teammates and her core value of perseverance have allowed her to play on.

Semifinal 2: USK Praha (Czech Republic) vs. Fenerbahce Safisport (Turkey)

The second semifinal this Friday pits Praha against Fenerbahce. Praha has two enormous WNBA talents this year in Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas. Both put up regular season performances that placed them in MVP consideration. Jones was the league’s second-leading scorer behind Copper at 19.8 points per game, but was first in average efficiency and ninth in rebounding at 8.5 per game. She may have handily won MVP honors if Thomas hadn’t been putting up her own impressive numbers of 14.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.1 steals per game.

Jones and Thomas have been inseparable for years now. They played together at Maryland as a freshman (Jones) and senior (Thomas), taking the Terps to the 2013-14 Final Four. And they reunited in Connecticut after the Sun drafted each of them out of college. Now, they’re playing their third overseas season together for Praha.

The dynamic duo will look to uproot Istanbul’s home team of Fenerbahce, which will not be easy given the impassioned loyalty of Turkish fans and the team’s top W imports of Elizabeth Williams, Kayla McBride and Satou Sabally. With a 13-3 EuroLeague record and their last loss coming way back in November, Fenerbahce is full of well-founded confidence heading into the weekend. Williams, who will join the Washington Mystics this season, is a significant piece of that confidence, having just been named the Defensive Player of the Year after leading the league in blocks and placing fifth overall in rebounds.

Minnesota Lynx shooting guard Kayla McBride has also found her stroke this season, finishing third in points per game while posting a prestigious 50-40-90 in shooting percentage. Add in Sabally’s 16.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, and Fenerbahce has the weapons to make a run at the championship.

The EuroLeague Final Four semis will tip off Friday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET, with the championship game to follow on Sunday at 10 a.m. ET. All games can be streamed live free of charge on EuroLeague Women YouTube.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.