UNICS Kazan has made it to the semifinals for the second time in three seasons, downing Russian rivals Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar in an exciting 7DAYS EuroCup Quarterfinals series that went down to the wire. Okaro White played a big role in crunch time, getting a critical put-back basket and hitting the series-sealing free throws in the final minutes of Game 3, leading UNICS to an 82-78 victory. He finished the game with 17 points, 7 rebounds and a career-high PIR of 26. With that win, White earned the right to play his former team, Virtus Segafredo Bologna, in the semifinals. White started his professional career with Virtus in the 2014-15 campaign, and also played for Aris Thessaloniki, then featuring current UNICS coach Dimitris Priftis, in the 2015-16 EuroCup. He returned to the EuroCup this season to play a leading role for UNICS. He has averaged 9.8 points and 5.7 rebounds in 16 EuroCup games, but boosted those numbers to 14.3 points and 6.0 rebounds in the series against Lokomotiv. White is fully aware that this is crunch time, as he told EuroCupBasketball.com. "We have to take care of what's in front of us and we have to be prepared and locked in," White said. "This is what we play for. This is why we came in August and trained and worked, for these moments of the season."
Okaro, congratulations on reaching the EuroCup Semifinals. How much of a goal was that for UNICS?
"I think it was a big goal for the club. With its history, UNICS has the goal to go far in whatever competition we are playing. So I think was a big goal, something that everyone, as a whole club, wanted to to get -- and we got it."
You helped make it happen with big plays down the stretch in Game 3. You must feel good to step up like that in crunch time.
"First of all, I feel great that we got the win. I don't think that I played so well; I could have done some things better. But as players, we always think that way. But I did what I could, too. Now we will get back in the gym and improve for the next match."
"We pride ourselves on playing defense first."
UNICS had to play really physical to win Games 1 and 3. Is that physicality one of your main weapons?
"Yes, I think so. We pride ourselves on playing defense first. I played for Coach Priftis maybe six years ago in Greece and he was the same way. He puts defense first and then everything else comes second. So that's what we play. All our guys can play defense but we are lucky to have a good amount of guys who can also play offense. I think that's our bread and butter. If we come out and play our normal defense, will have a shot to keep winning."
How does it feel to be back in the EuroCup and playing again under Coach Priftis, six years later?
"It's good. I said, when I left Greece, that if I ever came back overseas, I wanted to come to play for him first. Unfortunately, some things happened as far as injuries, but fortunately, I was able to call him up and they had a spot for me. This is where I wanted to be and I wanted to play for Priftis; this is the only reason I am in Kazan. So it was very lucky and very good timing."
How important is it to have a veteran like Jamar Smith, who knows everything about the EuroCup and Kazan, as your teammate?¡
"It is very important. Jamar is the guy I go to when I need to ask anything to do with Kazan. We have been blessed. Since day one, I got here and sat out for a couple of weeks to start passing tests and everything. Being able to watch them play, because I came about a month after everybody, I started to realize that Jamar Smith was a special talent, a special player. I am glad I got to experience him this year. He is a survivor! He came from the bottom. He is a leader and, as we see, he steps up in the big moments of the games."
How special will it be for you to face Virtus, your first pro team, in this semifinal series?
"It is very special. You know, it's funny how the game works; it all kind of goes into a circle at some point. Virtus gave me my first opportunity to play professionally and I had great moments in Bologna. It's a wonderful city, one of my favorites in Italy. Of course, that was seven years ago, so management, coaches and all the staff have changed. But hopefully, it'll be a warm greeting back in Bologna because that's a tremendous club with a tremendous history. So this will be a very good experience for me."
Is facing your former team at the highest stages of a European competition an extra motivation for you?
"I need to be the best version of myself, for sure, to help my team. So yes, that's motivation. You try not to take anything for granted, no matter where you playing: EuroCup, EuroLeague or the NBA. Every game, no matter where it is, is an opportunity to get better and be better. So, I will definitely take this personal, as far as trying to be the best I can be to help my team."
"Every game, no matter where it is, is an opportunity."
What needs to be done to beat such a talented team as Virtus?
"It will be difficult, but if any other team in the whole EuroCup can do it, I think it's us, and it is going to start with defense. You have some magnificent players on their side, but you got magnificent players on our side, too. They have a couple of guys with some NBA experience, especially Marco Belinelli, who played 10 or 12 years in the NBA. They have a good group together and are coached by a great talent. So we have to make it a dogfight, you know? We've gotta battle it out and we will see."
How important will UNICS's fan support in Game 2 be?
"It is a luxury. You feel a little off when you go to another country and are not able to play with fans. But it's OK, we are professionals and it is what we get paid to do, and we just happen to be on the good side [of having fans in the arena]. We will have our fans there in Game 2 and that will be great support for us. But also, we are professionals, so fans or not, we have to come ready to play Game 1, Game 2 or Game 3."
What would it mean for you to win the EuroCup and take UNICS back to the EuroLeague?
"That would be fantastic. I have been blessed. This is my third year altogether overseas, and I have been very blessed. My year in Bologna was a great year. We lost in the first round of the [Italian] playoffs but if I remember, they hadn't been to the playoffs in a while. I had a good season and then in my second year, in Greece, I had a very good season. And now, it seems the same. So this would be fantastic, but we have to take care of what's in front of us and we have to be prepared and locked in. This is what we play for. This is why we came in August and trained and worked, for these moments of the season."