Earlier this month, Unicaja Malaga became the first 7DAYS EuroCup debutante since 2004 to win the title. Truth be told, Unicaja was not an average newcomer, after having reached the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Top 16 in the previous 11 seasons. Unicaja showed great character by winning three playoffs series without home-court advantage and rallying in Game 3 of the finals to defeat Valencia Basket on the road and lift the trophy against all odds. Unicaja showed heart and determination to win, but arguably no one gave more than team captain Carlos Suarez, who truly led by example. Down 13 points with 9 minutes left in Game 3 of the finals, Suarez made the difference playing out of position, at center, during his team's incredible late comeback. After a long career as a small forward, Suarez switched to power forward last season and had to play center in Game 3's decisive minutes. Not losing its focus in the toughest moment of the game was key for Unicaja to lift the trophy, as Suarez told us in this EuroCupbasketball.com interview. "We talked about being calm and taking a step forward," Suarez told EuroCupbasketball.com. "We just wanted to play hard, have no fear, and that's it. We could not change the past, so the only thing we could do was look forward and play hard."
Hello, Carlos, EuroCup champion! This is your first European trophy. Is it the biggest title in your career?
"Yes, it is the biggest title, especially because of its importance and how it happened. I had won every possible domestic title in Spain, so I was missing a European title. I was close to getting it in 2013, when I reached the EuroLeague championship game with Real Madrid, but we lost against Olympiacos in London. I am very happy to win the EuroCup."
You had the honor of lifting the trophy, a privilege that few people get. How did it feel?
"It is something you always visualize before the game, even days before. You think about what to do when you lift the trophy. I sat down with a friend to think about what I could do. I lifted it the usual way, but also thought about Pablo Raez, a young sportman from nearby Marbella who passed away at age 20, two months before the EuroCup Finals, due to leukemia. I made his signature gesture: always strong. It was a very happy moment."
Unicaja won against all odds, taking three series without the home-court advantage. How much did that have to do with heart and determination?
"Everything. Winning Game 3 of the quarterfinals in Munich gave us a lot of confidence. We also played great basketball against Lokomotiv Kuban; it was not easy, but it was quick, 0-2. We had lost many times against Valencia this season, also in last season's domestic playoffs. We did great mental work, believing we could do this. Our technical staff did a great job and that was shown on the court, especially at the end of Game 3."
You were down 1-0 in the quarterfinals against Bayern and in the finals against Valencia. Did the fact that you rallied to beat Bayern help you do the same against Valencia?
"I think so. We had talked about it days before Game 2. We had done it already against Bayern Munich and were now in the same situation. We had to win two games after losing one opportunity and it was all or nothing for us. Our fans gave us wings at Martin Carpena in Game 2 and that confidence allowed us to play at a great level. We wanted to have options to win when we reached the fourth quarter in Game 3, taking into account that the anxiety the home team has in such situations could turn against them."
Once in Game 3 of the finals, you were down by 13 with 9 minutes left. What allowed you to get back in the game?
"Well, we talked about being calm and taking a step forward. We just wanted to play hard, have no fear and that's it. We could not change the past, so the only thing we could do was look forward and play hard. I had already talked to our coach and he knew that if he needed me to play at center against Bojan Dubljevic or Pierre Oriola, no problem, I would do it. Things were that way; we were without Dejan Musli, who was injured, Alen Omic was out and our only center, Viny Okouo, is developing well, but that situation was too big for him."
That was a critical move, you playing at center. What was your focus in those decisive minutes?
"Sincerely, you always remember what you have to do when you play against bigger, more physical opponents. The key is not letting them get the ball by being between them and the ball. When Dubljevic got the ball in the low post, I had instructions to foul him to avoid easy baskets. My teammates helped me double-team him so that he would pass the ball out. There was a key play in which they got four consecutive offensive rebounds but couldn't score. That was the key play, especially for them, because we hit a three-pointer right after that to get back in the game. We struggled a lot because with our small lineup; they were getting too many offensive rebounds. In the end, we showed character and confidence, and that play made us think we could do it."
Coach Plaza said that the team always believed in what it was doing. How important was his leadership to achieve this success?
"He has done a tremendous job, especially from a psychological, mental point of view. He made us believe we could do it. Obviously, I could also talk about technical issues, but what allowed us to win was our strong mentality. He said that if we won Game 3 in Munich, we would be able to win something big, and he wasn't wrong. Along with his technical staff, they made some motivational videos that gave us a lot of strength to believe in ourselves. People like Joan, Antonio Herrera, Angel Cañete and our media department have done a great job to keep us focused and mentally strong."
You came home to a whole city celebrating. What was the highlight?
"I cannot lie. The best moment was lifting the trophy, always. For me, being the first Unicaja captain to lift a trophy since Berni Rodriguez, the most important person in the club's history, is really special for me. I have to highlight also that when we arrived to Malaga at 4 a.m., there were more than 500 people at the airport, waiting for us to arrive, and those people had to go to work the following morning! You can tell you did something great, and I won't forget that."
Unicaja had not won a title in 11 years. How does it feel to make so much people happy in Malaga?
"Well, I believe this is my most special title. If you play for Madrid or Barcelona, you have a lot more options to win titles. Unicaja does not have the same budget as those two, so getting the EuroCup title was great. Just 10 years ago, Pepe Sanchez hit the three-point shot that took Unicaja to the EuroLeague Final Four. It makes you think how important this title is for a basketball city like Malaga. You can tell by the way people celebrated. It was incredible."
The EuroCup title comes with an extra prize, playing the 2017-18 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague. How do you feel about taking Unicaja back to the EuroLeague?
"It's great. Unicaja played in the EuroLeague for 15 consecutive seasons and made it to the Top 16 many, many times, fighting against the best teams in Europe. We earned the right to return and did it on the court. I hope we can compete against the best next season."