By KEREM HASAN
Near East University (NEU) women’s basketball team were treated to a heroines’ welcome on Thursday after they were crowned winners of the 2016-2017 Euro Cup.
A large crowd of supporters greeted them at Ercan airport as they proudly showed off the silverware after staging a miraculous comeback against Bellona AGÜ in the second leg of the final in İstanbul on Wednesday night.
The Lefkoşa outfit, which plays in the Turkish women’s Super League, is barred from playing any matches in North Cyprus following protests by Greek Cypriot sports officials to basketball’s governing body Fiba.
NEU, however, got around the ban by registering the team in Turkey and playing their “home” matches there.
“History has been made,” declared a jubilant Dr İrfan Suat Günsel, head of the NEU board of trustees, after the win.
“We have smashed the sports embargoes. There are no words to describe our feelings. This result has come about because of the love for our homeland, our country.”
Dr Günsel and members of the team paid a visit to President Mustafa Akıncı on Thursday, with captain Bahar Çağlar presenting him with a signed basketball shirt and ball.
“We want this success to be permanent,” Mr Akıncı said.
They players also visited Prime Minister Hüseyin Özgürgün, who said: “The bringing of the European championship trophy to the TRNC – which is under unjust embargoes – has made it all the more meaningful.
“We are proud and honoured and congratulate NEU for this fantastic success.”
The team made history on two fronts on Wednesday by becoming the first side to win the competition in their “rookie” season and the first Turkish Cypriot club to win a major international sports event.
NEU went into the “home” tie of Europe’s second-most important women’s club competition carrying a four-point advantage from the first match, which they had won 73-69, but found themselves behind for much of the game, trailing by 15 points at one point.
Having been on the back foot after a torrid start, with their star playmaker Courtney Vandersloot in foul trouble with four to her name and also down by double digits in the third quarter, it looked like it was not going to be NEU’s night.
However, a spirited comeback in the final quarter, led by international stars Quanitra Hollingsworth and Yelena Leuchanka, saw NEU rally back into contention, with the sell-out crowd rising to their feet as they stormed to a 63-58 victory, giving them a 136-127 win on aggregate.
Hollingsworth led the way for the winning side with 16 points and 10 rebounds with Belarussian forward Leuchanka chalking up 13 points and nine rebounds in just 20 minutes.
“We are really proud of what we achieved as a team,” Ms Hollingsworth said.
“We had a great comeback during the game that showed how much we believed, we fought and deserved the trophy.”
NEU coach Zafer Kalaycıoğlu said: “We are really happy, it was our first participation in [the] Euro Cup . . . and it is amazing to see that we could win the trophy.
“There is too much to say about our story, but I will just say thank you to everybody involved in this amazing journey we have had.”
The result was a bitter blow for Bellona AGÜ, who have now lost all three of the Euro Cup final appearances.
NEU will now look forward to a clash next season with the Euro League women’s champions, the traditional season-opening tournament.
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