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Girls basketball preview

Defending champs all look like teams to beat

Carly Sharp looks for an open teammate during a varsity basketball game between Stuttgart and Kaiserslautern at Kaiserslautern High School, Germany, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. Stuttgart won the game in overtime 45-44.

BRIAN FERGUSON/STARS AND STRIPES

By GREGORY BROOME | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 17, 2019

Contenders in this week’s DODEA-Europe girls basketball championship tournaments will be hard-pressed to unseat the Stuttgart Panthers, Black Forest Academy Falcons and Sigonella Jaguars, all of whom enter the postseason well-suited for successful title defenses.

Division I

The transfer of power seemed well underway on Feb. 8 as the Kaiserslautern Raiders, then the last remaining team with a perfect Division I record, held a substantial lead over defending champion Stuttgart with minutes to play.

But no such transfer was completed. The Panthers roared back with a whirlwind of three-pointers, steals and offensive rebounds, forcing overtime and claiming a shocking 45-44 victory. A day later, the reigning champs throttled the stunned Raiders 51-36. Rather than a transfer of power, the weekend served as a reassertion of it, sending Stuttgart to the tournament the favorite to win the title, which would be its third straight Division I crown.

As evidenced by the close outcome of that fateful Friday-night game, however, the gap between the Panthers and their pursuers is narrow.

Kaiserslautern won a series of close games before faltering against Stuttgart, including a three-point decision over Vilseck and two wins over rival Ramstein by a combined seven-point margin of victory.

Ramstein is squarely in the hunt despite those two losses to the Raiders. The Royals played Stuttgart to a doubleheader split, in the process handing the Panthers their only loss of the regular season.

Vilseck, which beat Ramstein in last year’s third-place game, enters the tournament with a winning divisional record, but its struggles against Kaiserslautern, Ramstein and Stuttgart seem to limit its upward mobility.

That leaves Naples, which reached last year’s European title game and nearly knocked off the Panthers before taking a 31-25 defeat. The Wildcats took a 40-27 loss to Stuttgart in a title-game rematch in December, and fell 18-16 the following day to Vilseck. But Naples has bounced back nicely from that slow start and maintains most of the key players from a year ago, making last year’s runner-up arguably Stuttgart’s biggest obstacle to a third straight championship.

Lakenheath, SHAPE, Vicenza and Wiesbaden round out the nine-team large-school bracket.

Division II

Black Forest Academy and Spangdahlem have kept an annual appointment in the European championship game for years. But they won’t keep it this year.

Spangdahlem was reassigned to Division III last fall, unceremoniously ending one of DODEA-Europe’s most sustained rivalries. Spangdahlem, then known as Bitburg, beat BFA for the title in 2015 before BFA embarked on its active three-year title streak, each at the expense of its closest rival.

BFA is likely to continue its run of title-game appearances in Spangdahlem’s absence. The Falcons haven’t played any Division II competition this winter, but they’ve long since transcended the need to prove themselves, and their strong showing against Division I competition this season proves their ongoing elite standards.

Should the Falcons continue their streak, the question remains of their eventual opponent.

American Overseas School of Rome has been succeeding in the Division II trenches, playing Aviano to a late January split and edging Rota and Bahrain by a combined three points in February. AFNORTH has no Division II record but has a non-divisional record that rivals BFA’s.

Those five squads, plus Florence and Marymount, comprise the field that will challenge BFA’s burgeoning dynasty this week.

Division III

The arrival of former Division II power Spangdahlem adds some intrigue to the small-school ranks. Other than that, the status quo appears firmly intact.

Sigonella has shaken off a few frustrating years of title-game heartbreaks to assert its dominance over the division. The Jaguars enter this year’s tournament seeking their third straight European crown.

The reigning champs have played like it all winter, winning all three of their divisional games against Brussels, Alconbury and Spangdahlem while poaching wins over upper-division foes such as Aviano and Vicenza.

Recent powers such as 2015 champion Baumholder, 2016 champion and 2018 runner-up Ansbach, 2018 semifinalist Hohenfels ank Ankara fill out the eight-team field.

broome.gregory@stripes.com

Twitter: @broomestripes

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