Jaume Ponsarnau has come a long way since he started coaching women's teams in Tarrega, his hometown, some 115 kilometers away from Barcelona. He managed to make his debut in the Spanish League in 2007 with Manresa, and in 2014 he moved to Guipuzkoa. In 2016 he landed in Valencia as an assistant coach and reached the 2017 7DAYS EuroCup Finals under head coach Pedro Martinez, but that team lost against Unicaja Malaga in Game 3 despite having the home-court advantage. Last summer, Valencia promoted Ponsarnau to head coach, and since the start of this EuroCup season, Valencia has lost just two games, both on the road, the last on November 6, 2018. Since then, Valencia has won 14 straight games, including two-victory sweeps in the quarterfinals and the semifinals, to reach its record sixth EuroCup Finals. Ponsarnau will experience the finals for the first time from the head of the bench, surrounded by a group of players who know what it means to win – and to lose – the trophy. "I think that the main problem we had in 2017 was that we barely had any energy left," Ponsarnau told Eurocupbasketball.com. "And that is something that we took care of this season so it does not happen again."
Coach, congratulations on a great season. What has allowed Valencia to be so consistent and solid during the whole competition?
"Thank you. Answering your question, the first factor has been having great players and a good number of them. On different days, they showed up to help the team take the competitive step that was needed. Another factor was our consistency on the road. Our two losses were away, but it was just two losses. Also, our home court, the La Fonteta factor. We found some competitive spirit and some energy there even when we ran into difficulties."
It is your first European final as head coach after many years working in basketball. Does it make this final even better and more exciting?
"The problem we had in 2017 was that we barely had any energy left."
"Each final I lived in my career with all my teams – Tarrega, Manresa, the U20 Spanish national team – each was a challenge and a step forward. They were situations that challenged you to take even more steps forward. So this final is big for me. I am happy to be here. It also brings me satisfaction to see what we did to get here. We were a competitive team that played a great EuroCup, and this is the reward for all that hard work."
You were Pedro Martinez's assistant coach when Valencia lost the finals in 2017. Most of your players were there, too. Is that an extra motivation to go all the way?
"More than a motivation, it gives us experience. We were in a final, and we have some players that were even in more finals, and it is an experience that we want to put to good use. I think that the main problem we had in 2017 was that we barely had any energy left. And that is something that we took care of this season so it does not happen again. But on the court things have to work out to win, because we are facing a mighty opponent that plays great basketball."
Home-court advantage was not enough in the last two EuroCup Finals. Can it be a decisive advantage in this series?
"I think that the home-court advantage is something that it's always important to have in your favor. Even if in the last two EuroCups it didn't play a decisive role, it's something positive, no doubt. But our opponent and its features makes us think that it might not be that way. ALBA Berlin is a team that feels comfortable both at home and on the road. The key is not their feeling comfortable playing at home or away, but their ability to run and score. When they manage to find that speedy game on the road, the pressure on the host increases, because you can find yourself disarmed. And when you try to get out of that situation, that's when your fans help you the most. We want to make good on our home-court advantage."
"We know that ALBA will hurt us... The key is to minimize that."
ALBA plays a completely different basketball style. How important will it be to control the game tempo?
"It will be paramount. But we do know that they will hurt us, because they run very well, both against teams who have slow and fast defensive transition. The key is to minimize that. The better we get back on defense, the less chances they will have to do their thing. But we won't be able to neutralize that because they are very good. They play very well. We have to live every moment in every game and be solid and consistent. And wherever we can intervene with tempo, do it to the best of our capabilities."
Valencia has excelled at defense, allowing 73 points or less in all four playoff games. Is defense your main weapon?
"This was a crucial factor in our competitiveness, not during the playoffs only, but during the whole season. We play against a team that is demanding on your defense. ALBA is one of the teams that forces more turnovers on opponents, and from there they can start running, which makes them dangerous. If we want to beat ALBA, we will have to be great on offense, too. Only defending well will not be enough to win."
How much of an honor will it be to battle against Aito Garcia Reneses in the EuroCup Finals?
"First of all, way before I even thought of becoming a coach, when I was starting to love this game, my definition of a coach was Aito. He was that coach who, through procedure and discipline, you could understand what was going on with his teams – even if you didn't know a great deal about the game. You saw there was a purpose and a reason to everything his teams did. I do not have idols, and I tried to look everywhere to learn about the game. I have watched many coaches, and also Aito, of course. However, I think I learned from Aito in a more indirect way because all those coaches I learned things from directly, they were applying things they had learned from Aito. Aito is a point of reference for all Spanish coaches for many things, not only because of what his teams do, but also why they do it. That gave us a base of knowledge and method that has been key for all Spanish coaches. Playing Aito is special for me because of everything I told you. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him, and I acknowledge not only the great season he had with ALBA, but also the great career he has had, which influenced us so much."
What makes ALBA such a great basketball team?
"First, they managed to build a roster to do the things Aito wanted to do. There may not be big names on that roster, but there is loads of talent there. From that starting point, hard work, Aito's method, and big confidence were the things. Aito had the patience and confidence to work without stress. You do not reach that level in the first year. ALBA did a great job with Aito, having patience with him. Aito's success is based on building things that do not have immediate results but they have a progression that turns everyone into better players. On top of that, he has his players playing with confidence. That is one of the basics of Aito's philosophy. Everything that ALBA players do, they do it with maximum determination because they are confident in what they are doing."
"Way before I even thought of becoming a coach, my definition of a coach was Aito."
Some of your players were already together when Valencia last won the EuroCup, in 2014. How important are all those years of playing together against a relatively unexperienced team like ALBA?
"We want them to be important. I am trying to use that in this way, because the experience some of our players have is something to value. However, ALBA's style cannot be compared to the style of other teams that we found in past finals. They have a style of play that normally doesn't allow teams to reach the finals. ALBA made it. In that sense, we cannot find much experience of playing these kind of games against a team similar to ALBA. However, playing at home or away in a final and the pressure that goes with it, that we can use. We want to use it to play to the best of our abilities."
What would it mean for you and for the club to win a fourth EuroCup title and return to the EuroLeague?
"First of all, what it would mean for the fans, the city and the club. There's a Valencia family that made a huge effort to bring the biggest possible resources to the club. The success in that is that Valencia Basket is always in the mix to play this kind of decisive games. In that sense, the Valencia Basket family and the Roig family [owners of the club] must be proud of not just winning the title, but also of being here, in this final, to be able to play for the trophy. As for those who are part of the team, we are happy to be here and it would make us even happier to win. But we have to remember that we play against a great team that has many features that makes it competitive. We will have to play at our maximum level in order for Valencia to lift another EuroCup trophy."