Galatasaray Cafe Crown is in the midst of its most successful European season to date and it couldn't have done it without one of its unsung heroes, sixth man Cuneyt Erden. The 30-year-old point guard, participating in his third ULEB Cup season, has played his best basketball at the most important times, helping Galatasaray through the elimination rounds and into the ULEB Cup Final Eight to face city rival Besiktas Cola Turka for a spot in the semifinals. The veteran sharpshooter has fired in at least 4 three-pointers in four games and has scored in double figures in five of his last six games, including crucial free throws to win the closest of all the Last 32 series. In this ULEBcup.com interview, Erden reflects on his team's season, talks about the atmosphere in Istanbul surrounding the much-anticipated quarterfinal encounter with Besiktas and looks ahead to the Final Eight. "As a member of Galatasaray Cafe Crown basketball team, of course my target is to reach the semifinal," Erden told ULEBcup.com. "We are a good team that has proved our quality from the beginning of the season. And based on our record, I can easily say ‘Why not?' for the championship."
Hello, Cuneyt. Congratulations to you and Galatasaray for making it to the ULEB Cup Final Eight. How has the season been for you and your team so far?
"This is the most successful period in our club's history. Reaching the ULEB Cup Final Eight after 10 or 15 years not playing in European cup competitions is really special. In the regular season, we suffered through unexpected losses against Spirou Charleroi and missed the chance to finish at the top of our group. But we used the opportunities we had in the elimination rounds to advance. And we did it despite ongoing injury problems that were really tough on our rotation. For sure, it's a great success for our club to reach the Final Eight and we are proud of our position right now."
In the Last 32 against Asvel Basket, you saved your team with 6 points in the final 30 seconds of the second game. How confident did you feel to take so much responsibility?
"Well, when I look back at those 6 points I scored against Asvel, they were all from the free-throw line. Of course those were really important points and it happened during a time that I felt I was on top of my game. Also you can't forget that I'm one of the most experienced players on this team and it's normal when I go to the foul line in critical moments or that I shoot the decisive three-pointers. I gladly took the responsibility and I'll do it whenever my coach asks me."
The Last 16 opening game against Gran Canaria was amazing. You guys dominated with great shot selection and controlled the boards. Was it Galatasaray's best game this season?
"Absolutely. The Kalise Gran Canaria game was one of our best, maybe the best. We took the court with great motivation and when we started scoring on every attempt, everybody started getting fired up. Everybody was feeling ready to explode and that's how we did it. And the most important thing was that we had a lead of nearly 30 points from the beginning and we were able to hold it until the end of the game. In the second leg, we were a little bit nervous at the beginning. But I think I did the right thing as the sixth man, coming off the bench and stopping Gran Canaria from running for a possible miracle."
Galatasaray now faces archrival Besiktas Cola Turka for the first time on a European stage, with a ULEB Cup semifinal spot at stake. How is the atmosphere in Istanbul about this game?
"The atmosphere at the club is getting hot. Unfortunately, we qualified for the Final Eight just before the elections at our club and now the new board of directors is just getting familiar with our success day by day. For the fans, it's already exciting and hopeful. They are all stopping just to ask about the Final Eight game against Besiktas. They are all wishing us good luck and expect another triumph. That puts a little more pressure on us, but that's how the rivalry between Galatasaray and Besiktas has been for a century. I think both teams will really focus on this game. Of course, it's a little unfortunate for both teams to play against each other in the quarterfinal. Actually, we would love to play in the final against Besiktas. Neither team wants to lose, especially not to the other and both sides will push hard for the semifinal spot. As a member of Galatasaray Cafe Crown basketball team, of course my target is to reach the semifinal."
You were not only decisive against Asvel, but averaged 14.5 points against Gran Canaria, almost three times your regular-season average. Are you made for decisive games?
"I really don't know. Maybe I choose between the games. Maybe this is the dark side of my game. Of course, I love to play in the crucial games more than in the regular season games. This season, I think I'm more motivated. Perhaps I'm taking into consideration the ability of our opponents and when they are strong, I'm more motivated. But I hope it stays the same way until the end of my career, because I'm quite happy with it all."
The game against Besiktas is arguably the biggest one in Galatasaray's European club history. What do you have to do to beat Besiktas?
"We lost to Besiktas by a big margin on our home court a couple of weeks ago. First of all, we have to stop their sharpshooters like Preston Shumpert, Rick Apodaca and Christian Dalmau. We have to show our defensive toughness first, before thinking about offense. That's what we did in the first game against Besiktas this season at their home court. I think we can duplicate what we did there even without Huseyin Besok. If we play our game, we can win anyway. Of course it's going to be a big absence for us to have Huseyin Besok sitting on the bench or in the stands. The doctors will have the last say on game day. But I think if we have him just for five or 10 minutes, it will be enough for us. It's important to have him any way."
It has already been a big season for Turkish basketball with Besiktas and Galatasaray at the Final Eight, Fenerbahce Ulker in the Euroleague Playoffs, while Turk Telekom and Efes Pilsen competed well in those competitions. Is Turkish basketball on the rise?
"The answer is yes, 100 percent. We all think that Turkish basketball in now just behind Spain as the second-best power in European basketball. There's not any other country that has five or six teams challenging for the league title. It's a result of the increasing investments of companies like Ulker and Turk Telekom and also the quality foreign players. The quality foreigners are helping the Turkish players raise their performances to challenge them. And that's how the quality and the worth of Turkish basketball goes up. If the investments by big establishments like Ulker, Efes Pilsen and Turk Telekom continue like this, I think Turkish basketball can reach the same level as football in this country."
Last but not least, how far can Galatasaray go in the competition and which teams, other than yours, are the favorites to win the ULEB Cup this season?
"We take every game one by one, step by step. That's how we did it all season, even when we were playing the regular season. We are looking at the Final Eight games the same way. We will play with the winner of the game between Pamesa Valencia and Joventut Badalona, if we move into the semifinals. It's too early to talk about it, but those games are single matches and it's about your daily performance and motivation, which is very different than the regular season. Joventut Badalona and Dynamo Moscow are the teams that I feel are one step ahead of the others for the title. But we are a good team that has proved our quality from the beginning of the season. And based on our record, I can easily say ‘why not?' for the championship."