It is not going to be easy, but Montakit Fuenlabrada faces what could be a historic night when it takes on Herbalife Gran Canaria Las Palmas on the road in Round 6 of the 7DAYS EuroCup Top 16 on Wednesday. Fuenlabrada needs a win to qualify to the EuroCup quarterfinals for the first time in club history. It has already been a memorable season for Fuenlabrada, which returned to the EuroCup for the first time since 2003. Its most accomplished player can also make EuroCup history; combo guard Marko Popovic needs just 15 points to become the competition's all-time top scorer. Mire Chatman leads the list with 1,187 points and Popovic is right behind with 1,173, which he accumulated over seven EuroCup seasons with Zadar, Unics Kazan, Khimki Moscow Region and Fuenlabrada. Popovic already wrote his name in golden letters in competition history by winning EuroCup titles with Unics in 2011 and Khimki in 2015. He earned EuroCup Finals MVP honors in 2011, when he scored 18 points and dished 11 assists in the title game against Cajasol Seville. Popovic is excited about the possibility of becoming the EuroCup's scoring leader, but wants to do it in style by taking Fuenlabrada to the next round to keep fighting for EuroCup glory. "I am not going to swap the record for a great win like that, if you ask me. I would like to win the game and set the record in the quarterfinals, definitely! If we win that game, we get at least two more and this is what I would like to accomplish with this team," Popovic told Javier Gancedo of EuroCupbasketball.com. "The scoring record would mean a lot to me but I won this competition twice and that is a much greater achievement. It would definitely be a great honor, but it is much bigger to have two EuroCup championships."
Hello, Marko. Congratulations on the win against UCAM Murcia. It was your first do-or-die game of the season, and you won it. How did you manage to handle the pressure so well and win the game?
"Thanks. After the first half, in which we allowed 47 points, we stepped up in the second half and played much better defense. We allowed only 22 points after the break and improved our team defense, rotations, rebounding, everything. We also started to hit some shots and shared the ball pretty well. Those were the keys to the game."
You came back after a few weeks out and contributed right away with a good performance. How much were you looking forward to returning to action?
"It is always a pleasure being on the court. I am still like a little kid, enjoying every minute, competing against any team in any league, especially when you have been out for a while. You get tired of practicing by yourself, treatments, practicing five-on-five and stuff like that. You have great desire to play in front of your home crowd, like I did against Murcia. The thing is that I have been struggling with injuries all year long. Hopefully, this was the last one."
Fuenlabrada recently signed center Rafael Hettsheimeir. How can he help the team going forward?
"Well, he is definitely going to spread the floor since he can shoot pretty well from the outside. Especially from the point guards, there is going to be more space to penetrate and kick the ball out. He is a quite opposite player to Moussa Diagne, (who left the team to join FC Barcelona Lassa two weeks ago) who is a shot blocker, defensive player. Rafa has a huge body, can play in the low post and has a soft touch. He will need a couple of more weeks to adapt to our systems and integrate to our team, get comfortable with all of us. We will help him out and hopefully he will help us back, too."
You need just 15 points to become the EuroCup's all-time top scorer. How much of an honor is it to be right there, so close to leading the scoring standings?
"I would be lying if I said I would not like to break the record, but if that had been my number one priority, I wouldn't have chosen to play for Fuenlabrada last season. I would have chosen a EuroCup team to accomplish that achievement, but since it is here and it is close, I would definitely like to do it. The most important thing is that we are fighting for a quarterfinals spot and if we win in Gran Canaria, we advance. I am not going to swap the record for a great win like that, if you ask me. I would like to win the game and set the record in the quarterfinals, definitely! If we win that game, we get at least two more and this is what I would like to accomplish with this team. The scoring record would mean a lot to me, but I won this competition twice and that is a much greater achievement. It would definitely be a great honor, but it is much bigger to have two EuroCup championships."
Let's talk about it! You won with Unics Kazan in 2011 and with Khimki in 2015. How do you compare both experiences?
"Well, I had different roles. In Unics, I was one of the most important players, with a lot of playing time on the court as the starting point guard and in Khimki, I was Tyrese Rice's backup. Basically, these were very different roles, but the joy is always the same when you win a title. One of the things I learned during my career is how to adapt, put my ego on the side and sacrifice for the team. And that is exactly what I did in Khimki. I was so happy to accomplish our goal for the second time, both for the club and personally! It is always great to repeat something as good as what I experienced with Unics."
You were chosen as the EuroCup finals MVP in 2011 and set a title game assists record with 11. Was it the best moment of your career so far?
"To be honest, it is probably the greatest achievement of my career, but it is not my favorite one. That has to be my first title with Zadar, winning the Adriatic League [in 2003], because I was young and saw everything from a different perspective. If you look at awards, yes, [the EuroCup] was the greatest trophy of my career. First of all, I remember the semifinal, because it was a quite special game for me, playing against a Croatian team, (Cedevita Zagreb,) and against Aca Petrovic, a great motivator, great at preparing games. I was quite worried about that one; I didn't even think about the final. Then in the final game, surprisingly, we were dominating in the first half and controlled it until the end of the game. I believe that without any doubt, we were in the best team in the EuroCup that year and nobody can say that the final could have gone either way. We showed great authority from the first game until the final. I probably played some of the best basketball in my career. Sports have great moments in which you go from being disappointed to reaching glory. We lost against Charleroi in the EuroLeague Qualifying Rounds when we had everything in our favor. At that point, nobody had a clue about what would happen that season. We were sad for not making it to the EuroLeague and ended up winning the EuroCup in a very well-deserved way."
How different is the approach from playing for a title contender like Unics and Khimki than playing for Fuenlabrada, which is back in the competition for the first time since 2003?
"For me, every win means a lot more here. Every win feels like a quarterfinal or a semifinal game with other teams. It means double because of the joy people have in the gym gives you something special. I never played for low-ranked teams and always competed for the first position in any country that I played. It was a different experience last year and we achieved some great things together, making it to the Spanish King's Cup and the Spanish League playoffs. We beat some big teams and our prize was playing the EuroCup. I was worried how it was going to be, playing two competitions, but here we are, alive before the final game of the Top 16, fighting for the quarterfinals. I believe it was a great choice."
Until now, you have played nine EuroLeague and seven EuroCup seasons. You are the perfect candidate to compare the competitions. What do you like about the EuroCup?
"It is definitely a tough competition, especially when it comes to the knockout stages, where you had only two games and you had to give 100% from the first minute until the end of the second game. I think it is a great decision to have three-game playoffs series; it is more fair, I believe. In previous years, I believe that everybody who played the first game at home had a little advantage. Of course, for great teams with deep rosters, it didn't mean anything, but if two same-level teams faced each other, playing Game 1 at home gave you a psychological advantage; that is my personal opinion. Of course, the EuroLeague is a stronger league, with higher intensity. You feel exhausted after every game you play, it is something special. You know you were playing in the best league in Europe, on the top. It is really hard to compare because as a competitor, I want to give my best no matter what. It was definitely a joy to play in both competitions."
Your season comes down to the game against Gran Canaria. You play on the road and Gran Canaria has been really strong at home. Could the fact that they are the favorites be a factor in this game?
"I don't know if there is pressure or not; we had a really bad defeat there in the Spanish League (111-60 in late October), so we have to be well-aware of what they can do and prepare the game very well. We have to come out and be aggressive on both ends of the court. I don't know if we can reach the final minutes being close to them or with the lead, because then they can be nervous, but the thing is that we already did a great job in this competition. If we take one more step, it will be great for the club and our fans. We are definitely going there to try to win the game."
Last but not least, what needs to be done to beat Gran Canaria?
"We have to match their energy, stop their fast breaks and accomplish what we want to do in the pre-game scouting. We know they have a lot of experienced players and play in front of their home crowd. We know it is definitely not an easy road, but as always, if we have a chance, we will go for it and try to win the game."