Paul Nilsen is a freelance basketball journalist writing for various websites and publications across Europe.
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The recent race to qualify for EuroBasket Women 2013 was an absorbing one with all the key ingredients neutral fans had hoped for.
There was plenty of twists and turns, final-day drama and floods of tears - both in joy and despair.
And, as with most qualification campaigns, it highlighted just how cruel it can be not being invited to the party at all.
Even those who may ultimately have a disappointing ride in France next summer, at least they will have the experience (bitter or sweet) of another huge women's basketball event.
Missing out on that opportunity after a couple of months of really hard work is painful and, for a number of nations in particular, it probably hurts that little bit more.
Before the Qualification Round tipped off, Israel, Hungary, Poland and Greece in particular would have expected to make it but were subsequently left crestfallen after missing out.
The failure of these sides was every bit as engrossing as those who punched their tickets with considerable glee.
|Dóra Horti and most of Hungary's core players last played at a EuroBasket Women Final Round in 2009 - they will now have to go six years without another appearance |
Perhaps the one thing linking all of these teams was the absence of key players, combined with some of their group rivals arguably punching above their weight.
The most fascinating group was always going to be Group A, labelled with the apt cliché ‘The Group Of Death'.
Aside from Portugal, there were four teams who were similarly ranked.
Hungary and Israel missed out and in the case of the former, it was a hammer blow of significant proportions.
As co-hosts of EuroBasket Women 2015 it was, in my opinion, absolutely essential that Hungary qualified to build up some momentum and, from a pure basketball point of view, to ensure they wouldn't have to go three years without any competitive basketball games.
Having brought in Stefan Svitek, who was exceptional with Good Angels Kosice in the EuroLeague Women, there was positivity and especially when Alexandria Quigley became eligible to play for Hungary, to take the sting out of not having Zsofia Fegyverneky and Tijana Krivacevic available.
But, they didn't get the job done and for a nation with so many talented players, six years between EuroBasket Women Final Round appearances is galling.
Hungary simply has to make amends with a strong performance in three years time but, in reality, only an unlikely medal success could make up for missing successive EuroBasket Women tournaments.
It is a gap so many talented Hungarian players should never have on their resume.
Israel can probably be a little more philosophical about their failure to qualify.
They have enjoyed such an unbelievable qualification record down the years that it was kind of inevitable they would miss the boat at some point and, with a few veterans leaving and also thrown into a tough group, it was always going to be a difficult assignment.
|Paulina Pawlak was there, but other veterans like Ewelina Kobryn and Agnieszka Bibrzycka did not play in the Qualification Round, contributing perhaps to Poland's failure to reach the Final Round|
So, it looks like their Final Round curse of not winning for over 20 years will be extended that little bit longer until at least the next time, if they do make it.
ABSENCES AND BAD LUCK
Poland and Greece both had their kingpins absent and that had an undeniable impact.
I actually think both teams did a reasonable job in the circumstances and had Poland coach Jacek Winnicki been able to call upon Ewelina Kobryn and/or Agnieszka Bibrzycka and if Greece coach Alekos Daglas could have utilised game-changing veteran Evina Maltsi then things may have been different.
The other two nations who can feel decidedly disappointed but for very different reasons, are Slovenia and Belgium.
I had high hopes for both teams. In respect of Belgium, they were without three big-time veterans in Ann Wauters, Kathy Wambe and Anke De Mondt, although the latter had committed but injury ruled her out.
Perhaps I was expecting far too much from a young Belgian team, especially without the leadership and experience of De Mondt, but I am absolutely certain that Belgium is a team with players much better than their eventual 1-7 record which, incidentally, would have been 0-8 but for their last day success over the Netherlands.
Perhaps this will prove in the future to have been a harsh but priceless learning curve.
As for Slovenia, how is your luck? Well, the answer to that is all bad.
I never like injuries being used as an excuse but in their case, it was valid. The number of serious injuries they sustained was just astonishing and, having started like an express train, it eventually derailed their bid.
Just like Belgium, I think Slovenia can and will be a big threat in the future at this level.
ON THE PLANE TO FRANCE
So, saving the best for last, congratulations to those teams who did make it. Neighbours Lithuania and Latvia overcame some absences to continue their run of successive qualifications while despite some uncertainty during their preparation period, the Slovak Republic went on to have a magnificent campaign.
|No Yelena Leuchanka for Belarus? No problem, step up Anastasiya Verameyenka, one of the most consistent players in the Qualification Round |
Spain did what they needed to do to bounce back from their EuroBasket Women 2011 disappointment but it was less than straightforward for new play-caller Lucas Mondelo, who now has the time ahead of the Final Round to do more work.
Causing Spain a few headaches were a sensational Sweden, whom I tip my hat to in utter admiration for the way they finally delivered, spearheaded by Frida Eldebrink and Louice Halvarsson. It will be such fun watching them at the Final Round.
Belarus were amazing. I shamefully doubted their ability to bounce back from the emotional low point of last summer and feared they may blow it when they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in their penultimate game, against Israel.
But, they showed real heart and character to bounce back in each instance and did so without the heavyweight presence of Yelena Leuchanka.
As for Anastasiya Verameyenka? What a player. She just gets better and better. Those Fenerbahce fans had better worship and cherish her presence in Istanbul during the forthcoming EuroLeague Women season!
Montenegro did an important job of building on their historic appearance last summer, by securing back-to-back Final Round appearances and it will be interesting whether they can make the same kind of splash the second time around.
Italy were intriguing for the new brush they used to revitalise their roster and it was exciting to see their fresh approach deliver success and a place at the top table.
It was a bold and decisive move to radically change their roster. Some of it was enforced but nevertheless, it was hugely impressive the way they gelled quickly and showed real mental strength after a opening-night mauling in Riga, which now seems like a lifetime ago.
Last but not least, what about Ukraine and Serbia, the two final-day drama queens who return to the Final Round, having not made it to Poland in 2011.
Ukraine were in the Group A dog-fight but did a wonderful job after riding a real roller-coaster right until the final buzzer of the final game.
Rather aptly, Oleksandra Kurasova produced the quote of the summer when explaining she was so nervous and stressed after this campaign that even her eyebrows had turned grey!
Serbia also deserve huge credit. They managed to fight and keep themselves alive after falling behind in the race.
Montenegro and Poland both looked sure-fire bets approaching the last few games, but they found a super run just when it mattered.
I got more satisfaction from seeing an up-and-coming female coach like Marina Maljkovic overcoming the loss of Sonja Petrovic and, for the most part, Jelena Milovanovic to still achieve the target.
And, with former national team star Ana Jokovic a driving force for women's basketball in Serbia, it will be interesting to see if this is the start of something really big for them.
I am already counting down the days to next June and can't wait to see these teams at the Final Round!