LODZ (EuroBasket Women 2011) - The road to the London Games passes through the Polish city of Lodz this week with eight teams still in the hunt for a spot in the Olympics.
The Quarter-Final Round of the EuroBasket Women tips off on Wednesday and while defending champions France are still alive as well as Russia, the team they beat in the 2009 title game, a couple of other teams accustomed to being in the chase for medals have been eliminated already.
Both Spain and Belarus, among the favorites to capture gold before start, endured early exits after respective Round 2 defeats to Croatia and Turkey.
Spain are number five in the FIBA World Rankings for Women but they won't be in London.
The 34-year-old Amaya Valdemoro, the most famous and successful Spanish women's player of all time, won't play in a third straight Olympics.
"I can't stop crying," she said after returning home.
Latvia, one of the best supported women's national teams in Europe and one of the teams that competed with Belarus, Spain, Russia and the Czech Republic at the Beijing Games, do have a chance of making it to the Olympics.
After finishing second in Group F behind first-timers Montenegro, the EuroBasket Women's only unbeaten team six games into the competition, the Latvians' reward is a game against Russia - the side that beat them in overtime of the 2009 Quarter-Final in Riga.
Russia haven't been at their best and three unsportsmanlike fouls against Great Britain on Monday, including an elbow thrown by Ilona Korstin at Natalie Stafford, show just how frustrated Boris Sokolovskiy's players have become.
Korstin could have been banned for up to five games but was instead fined 4,000 Euros, which means she will be able to play against Latvia.
Wednesday's second and last Quarter-Final pits Croatia against the Czech Republic, who have not slowed down after last year's silver-medal success at the FIBA World Championship for Women.
The Czechs don't have Hana Horakova this summer, the MVP of last year's tournament, and other prominent players retired.
But Eva Viteckova, Katerina Elhotova and Jana Vesela are still in the fold and have led the Czechs to five wins in six games in Poland.
They have a dangerous game coming up against the Croatians, the team that ended Spain's run with a 75-71 win over La Roja.
Sandra Mandir, the Croatia captain, had 24 points in Sunday's game and Mirna Mazic, the team's starting power forward, had a game-high 15 rebounds to go with her four points.
Like the Czechs, the Croatians have also had to do without an important player as point guard Andja Jelavic is hurt and wasn't available.
Complicating their path even more was the loss of Ana Lelas in their Group C defeat to Latvia.
The victory over Spain showed Croatia can still beat any opponent in Poland, though.
"Our goal had been to get past the first round," Mazic said to FIBA.com, "and now we have done even better by getting to the Quarter-Finals.
"Why shouldn't we have a chance of winning our next game? We beat Spain, so we can win another."
Croatia have even dreamed of making their way to the London Games, something that didn't seem remotely possible after their 86-40 demolition at the hands of France on the opening night of the EuroBasket Women.
"To get to the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament would be amazing," Mazic said.
"We're just so happy and stunned right now."
In Thursday's Quarter-Final games, undefeated Montenegro meet Turkey and Lithuania square off against France.
Montenegro have played the best basketball of any team in Poland, which isn't bad at all for a national side making its debut in the competition.
The Montenegrins pass the ball well in their half-court offensive and also hit their open shots.
They rank first in points per game with an average of 73.3, first in field goal percentage (46.6), second in free-throws made per contest (14.5) and third in rebounds (42.2).
"I think we believed in ourselves, but we didn't believe we'd be undefeated at this point of the tournament," said veteran guard Anna De Forge, a naturalized Montenegrin, to FIBA.com.
"Every game, we gain confidence. We have really good chemistry and are just playing really well right now."
Despite having to take on Montenegro, Turkey are not complaining.
They had to win their last two games in Group E to make it to the last eight and did just that, grinding out a victory against Great Britain and then knocking off Belarus.
Turkey are the host nation for the 2014 FIBA World Championship for Women and the national team wants to warm up for that by playing at the London Games.
"Our goal now is to get a medal," said Turkey veteran Yasemin Horasan.
"They're (Montenegro) a really good team.
"We played against them in Turkey in a (warm-up) tournament but this is different."
"They want to go to the Olympics, too," she added.
Thursday's other Quarter-Final sees Lithuania take on France.
While the defending champions have lost their starting center Emmeline Ndongue to an Achilles tendon injury that will prevent her from playing basketball for several months, they still have a deep and very talented squad.
People back in Paris expect Les Bleues to capture a second straight gold medal but the primary aim for France boss Pierre Vincent and his players has been to get to the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, and a win against Lithuania would ensure their presence.
Lithuania, meanwhile, are still smarting over their narrow defeat to the Czechs on the last day of Round 2 action because a win would have thrown them into a game against Croatia.
Instead, the four-point setback means they have to take on the team many expected to reach the top of the podium.
Lithuania finished second in Group E and France were third in Group F, but make no mistake - Pierre Vincent's French squad are the favorites going into that clash.
photo Getty Images
photo Getty images