April 11, 2022 

EuroLeague Final Four: Underdog Sopron gets crowned champions

Gabby Williams was unstoppable

All of the effort, all of the impressive play, all of the gaudy numbers, all of the wins, all of the dominating spans, all of it to host the Final of the 2022 edition of the EuroLeague Women on Istanbul’s soil… and all of it for nothing. That’s Turkish side Fenerbahçe’s season in a nutshell.

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On the flip side, the Hungarians of Sopron have every single reason to celebrate what they just achieved. Sopron was the clear no. 2 to Fenerbahçe’s no. 1 on everybody’s predictions. Sopron was, as Fenerbahçe entering Sunday’s final, a never-has team when it came to lifting the ELW trophy. Sopron has now changed that label, though, becoming a never-had club instead.

ELW Final: Sopron 60, Fenerbahçe 55

You can check what went down in the first sudden-death round of the postseason by reading that post.

Sopron and Fenerbahçe, of course, were both part of this season’s Group B, finishing second and first, respectively, through the regular-season 14-game schedule. Fenerbahçe, though, put up a dominating 11-3 record without losing a single game from Week 7 winning out their last 12 games (regular season + postseason) leading up to the final.

Sopron, while finishing second, did so with a lower .571 winning percentage and a much-balanced 8-6 record that tied with those of two other teams in regular-season play. Sopron finished the regular season losing two in a row, though they quickly fixed their problems and sailed through the final with 2-0 and 1-0 series wins against BLMA and Avenida.

The outcome can’t be seen as a ridiculous upset, far from it. To each its own, but the fact that Sopron has been a fantastic team all year long can’t be refuted. Did the Russian teams open a huge door to the likes of Sopron and Fenerbahçe to make the final — the Final Four, even —after getting removed from the postseason? Probably. But it’d be naive to come up with excuses just to build an unreasonable case against Fenerbahçe’s and Sopron’s exploits.

Atlanta Dream center Elizabeth Williams (1), Connecticut Sun forward Brionna Jones (42) and Atlanta Dream forward Shekinna Stricklen (40) fight for rebounding position during a WNBA game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on Sept. 19, 2021. (Photo credit: Chris Poss)

On Sunday, a crowd of 9,500 in Istanbul, both finalists could field every single one of their players for as many minutes as they wished as none of them came hampered by injuries or other maladies. So we got our fair share of superstars doing it at the upper-echelon and brightest of stages overseas. Not bad for a start.

If you ask Fenerbahçe’s coach and players, odds are they are not too happy with how the game got rolling. Sure, the first period finished 16-6 in which isn’t a true outlier of a score after 10 minutes of play, only Sopron got to a 12-point lead (12-0, that is) with under three minutes left in Q1. Only Satou Sabally hitting a three could break an 0-for-11 shooting start from the Turkish side, which couldn’t catch a break.

Sopron, truth be told, could have finished the game right then and there like they did against Avenida in the semifinals. They missed a bunch of shots themselves and couldn’t build an insurmountable lead even given a fantastic chance to do so. Didn’t matter at the end of the day, even though Fenerbahçe made the contest a one-point affair four minutes into the third.

Chicago Sky forward Gabby Williams (15) during a WNBA game against the Connecticut Sun at Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Illinois, USA on June 23, 2019. (Photo credit: Chris Poss)

Neither team shot above 37% with both attempting virtually the same amount of shots (59 and 62 field-goal attempts), making five three-point shots each, and scoring 10 and 11 freebies. That is what the final scoreboard of 60-55 truly conveys: a very tight affair, but one in which Sopron took the lead, managed the game, controlled the pace, and ultimately went away with the victory.

Let’s highlight one and only one name: Gabby Williams, she of the ELW Final MVP award. If you don’t remember what took place two days before the grand finale when Sopron defeated Avenida, it was truly Jelena Brook’s show back then. That said, Williams was good enough to leave her imprint in that game with a 13-point, six-rebound, six-dime, three-steal outing shooting 43% from the field and hitting her lone three-point attempt. Then, the final.

Gabby Williams closed Sunday’s match with 16 points, four rebounds, four steals (game-high), three assists, and a block on top of everything. She also had another 50% shooting night (7-of-14) while dropping one of the five long-range shots she went for. And she was a freaking octopus multiplying her presence on the court, applying the toughest defense we’ve seen all year long in Europe, and turning into a walking wall that Fenerbahçe never found a way to overcome.

The Turkish, loaded with incredibly talented superstars all across their roster, found their best player in Olcay Cakir. That’s not to say Cakir is bad, but that development was quite telling when you factor in the fact that she plays next to the likes of Elizabeth Williams (Defensive Player of the Year), Alina Iagupova (two-time back-to-back MVP in the past two editions), and Kayla McBride (best TS% among ELW players with at least 12 FGA per game this season).

Minnesota Lynx guard Mayla McBride (21) shoots during the WNBA game between the Minnesota Lynx and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on August 19, 2021. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

No player from Fenerbahçe except Cakir shot above 50% from the field. No player other than Iagupova attempted more than 10 shots, and that was a mixed blessing — 4-of-18 from the field and 0-for-10 from the arc for 13 points.

Elizabeth Williams showcased her all-defensive talents with eight rebounds, three steals, and one block, all of those contributions getting wasted. Kayla McBride had an afternoon to forget with a minus-15 plus/minus in 23 minutes in which all she could do was go 1-of-10 from the field for two points over the full game. Satou Sabally was good but not great and Zahui B. (the semifinals heroine) finished the game frustrated yet with the second-best efficiency (10) among players from the Turkish side.

On Sopron’s front, Williams found a bona fide second fiddle in Briann January. The starting guard lit a fire and brought energy to her teammates. Brooks, after scoring 27 in the semifinal, found a way to nine points and 11 rebounds in 39 (!) minutes of playing time. Bernadett Hatar and Stefanie Dolson pulled down seven rebounds each dominating the paint, and Zsofia Fegyverneky had a really strong 12-point, five-rebound, three-assist, two-steal game manning the point.

Sopron dropped a final as recently as 2018, but here they are now. Fenerbahçe also reached the last game of the season just one year before, in 2017, yet the Turkish didn’t have enough to defeat Dynamo Kursk back then, nor could they crack the postseason for final appearances in 2016 and 2021 (both 3rd-place finishes).

Congratulations to Sopron for becoming the first-ever Hungarian team to lift the biggest of Euro Crowns. These women truly deserved it.

ELW 3rd-Place Game: Avenida 71, Praha 59

With Maria Conde out for the day after getting injured in the semifinal match against Fenerbahçe, Praha opted to run a six-woman rotation in this game. Seriously. I’m not going to take from Avenida, of course, because the 12-point win was as solid as they get. But to think Praha stood a chance against the Spaniards using just six players — of which five played 33 or more minutes and four topped 35 — is just crazy.

Although Avenida welcomed Katie Lou Samuelson back in time for the semifinal game, the younger of the Samuelson sisters arrived for good against Praha. Samuelson scored 25 points to go with four rebounds, three steals, and a couple of dimes in a 28-efficiency effort that thrust Avenida toward the bronze medals.

Katie Lou Samuelson blows by Sabrina Ionescu and rises in front of and over a vertically extending Natasha Howard to take a layup
(Photo credit: Neil Enns | Seattle Storm)

Brionna Jones (26-point, 11-rebound double-double) and Alyssa Thomas (seven points, seven assists, nine rebounds, three steals) played to extraordinary levels on Sunday but they were too careless with the ball, and turning it over five and seven times, respectively. Veronika Vorackova was the best player for Praha, though, with 14 points, seven rebounds, two blocks, one assist, and one steal.

As was the case in the semifinal game against Fenerbahçe, Praha got to put themselves at a nine-point distance in the first half but ultimately couldn’t hold on to that lead — Avenida found themselves 13 points ahead approaching the end of the third period. The Spaniards destroyed Praha in shooting efficiency (44% from the field to 34%, 77% on free-throw shots to Praha’s 52%) and, most of all, bench contributions. Obviously, having just one reserve was always going to limit Praha’s production on that front, but the two points scored by Dragana Stankovic (22 minutes) paled against the 22-point effort by all of Leonor Rodriguez, Silvia Dominguez, Emese Hof, and Maria Fasoula in their 73 accrued minutes of playing time.

Kahleah Copper had a bitter send-off, scoring only six points (though she added eight rebounds and five assists) and getting injured while wrapping up her European tour in between the 2021 and 2022 WNBA seasons.

“She’ll be fine,” Chicago Sky head coach James Wade told The Next. “It was just an awkward fall but she will be fine.”

Bella Alarie was good for six points, three rebounds, two blocks, and one steal. Karlie Samuelson, the other WNBA import involved in this game, put up seven points with two assists, one rebound, and one steal rounding her performance.

James Kay contributed reporting to this story.

Written by Antonio Losada

International freelance writer covering the WNBA overseas. Bylines at places, touching different bases. Always open to discussion over @chapulana || Full portfolio

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