|A year ago, after a 3-0 start in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Top 16, point guard Roko Ukic watched with a 40-degree fever as Fenerbahce Ulker lost an overtime road game that eventually led to elimination from the playoffs in a tie-break situation. Now, after his season-saving buzzer-beater sparked a dramatic overtime victory last week, Ukic and FB Ulker are looking for the opposite luck. They need to win on Wednesday on the road against EA7-Emporio Armani Milan and hope that Panathinaikos does the same in Kazan, Russia against Unics. If so, after a year-long plague of injuries, they can finally taste the playoffs and keep alive their dream of playing the Final Four in Istanbul this May. "We will focus on ourselves and trying to do our part of the job by winning in Milan," Ukic told Euroleague.net. "If we're lucky, both results will go in our favor, and then we will be where we wanted to be. Maybe we deserved to be in the playoffs last year more than this year, but you never know in basketball."
Roko, with one game left in the Top 16, Fenerbahce Ulker is close to the playoffs, but still needs some luck. Is luck turning this team's way lately?
"It's kind of been up and down luck all season. Last year, we had a great start in the regular season and the Top 16, then had our bad luck with injuries. This year was different because we came into the season with a lot of injured players, had lots of bad moments in the domestic competition. So, we're not in the place where we want to be yet, but the Euroleague is so hard, whether the first stage or the second stage, that you just have to stay alive sometimes. And we're still alive. I think we have a decent chance now, too. Panathinaikos has to beat Unics for us, but I think they are the best team in the group and they need that victory. We will focus on ourselves and trying to do our part of the job by winning in Milan. If we're lucky, both results will go in our favor, and then we will be where we wanted to be. Maybe we deserved to be in the playoffs last year more than this year, but you never know in basketball."
You saved the season with a game-tying shot last week that led to an overtime victory AND a tie-break advantage against Unics. Can you tell us about that play?
"When we were down by six points with a minute left and needed six more to cover our first loss, you could see everybody's heads were down. Marko Tomas and I said to each other: 'Our only chance is overtime. Let's try.' While everyone else was thinking it's impossible to make up 12 points in 50 seconds, we knew you can in 5 minutes and 50 seconds. And we saw that Unics wasn't counting on that possibility until the last offense. It just didn't seem possible. But then we cut the difference to 2 points and we had the ball. Emir Preldzic had a mismatch, so we let him play and he got a long offensive rebound with 4 seconds left. I knew we needed 2 points, not 3. I was near the three-point line and called him to pass it to me. I got to the lane and shot it, and as soon as I released, I knew it was in. Emir said later that if I hadn't called him, he wouldn't have passed, because he never would have thought there was enough time left to do anything but try a difficult shot. When we got to overtime, it was a different game. Our fans were pumped up and everything went in our favor. We had a great overtime. We did good things, but had luck, too. I think we deserved it, though. We fought all game and really believed."
Is there pressure in Istanbul to make the playoffs and at least get a chance at the Final Four there?
"The pressure is here, but I can't tell you it's something we don't know how to live with. Every year is big pressure here because it's been such a long time since last the last Turkish team made a Final Four. And especially this year, with the Final Four in Istanbul, everyone is so excited. Our team had a lot of injuries, so we needed a few months to get into normal shape, and then I broke my hand. Marko missed at least four Euroleague games. Mirsad Turkcan was out the first phase. Omer Onan is out now. We had similar problems with key players last year, too, so it's difficult for our coach and for everybody. We just hope now that in this important part of the season, we can catch our rhythm, play well and do what everyone expects from us. I'm not saying we can go to the Final Four - right now it's all about one game - but we want to keep working to become a good basketball team that can compete against every team in Europe."
A year ago, FB Ulker had a 3-0 record in the Top 16, but couldn't advance. Did that experience teach any important lessons?
"We were 3-0 and played on the road against Zalgiris. Mirsad had just got injured for the rest of the season. I couldn't play with a 40-degree fever. Marko had a hamstring pull, but played. Without three players, though, we lost by a point in overtime. Then against Olympiacos, we were up by 12 and lost by 15. Then we lost the tie-breaker with Valencia on the road. For sure, it teaches something. We're almost in the same situation this year, and we know that with one game left, everything can change. The experience from last year teaches us to not give up. We know how hard it is, but we want to make it this year."
It seems that the team is more healthy now than at any time in a year. Does that give you as much confidence as ever?
"Well, we've had only one game fully healthy, to start the Top 16 against Milano. Now, Omer Onan is out and Marko Tomas has been back just a few days. I came back early from my broken hand. I still cannot play in practice at a normal rhythm. But these things are not worth mentioning, because every team fights with injury problems and has alibis. It's something there that you have to fight through. I just hope we can stay healthy and keep going up and injuries don't put us back again. If we can play at a regular rhythm in all our competitions, it will help, because without that, it's hard to make team chemistry."
Your next do-or-die game is in Milan after that team beat Panathinaikos on the road. What are you expecting?
“For sure, they are a good team that will try to beat us. Milan is kind of an underachiever this season. I expected them to win more games than they've done. But I followed them last month in the Italian League and Italian Cup and they are playing good. And, of course, they just beat Panathinaikos. For sure, they are a better team than the one we played a month ago. They have some changes in the roster with J.R. Bremer in and Malik Hairston back, while they don't have Drew Nicholas now. So for sure it's a different team, but with great players who have been on the Euroleague stage a long time. For sure, we're going to have bigger motivation. Milan is playing to keep a good rhythm and we play to get in the playoffs. We will try to put all our effort into it and go on the floor with fire in our eyes to do whatever we can to win that game."
You have a lot of experience over the years in games like this. What will be your focus going into it?
"First, we have to get out there with 100 percent of our energy. No one can be tired or unfocused or not concentrated for that game. I know that our coaching staff will do everything tactically. The victory will not come down to one thing, but a lot of little ones. We have to rest and practice and concentrate well for the game. We need to have a good trip and to take care of small things in order to be 100-percent, physically and mentally, when game-time comes. We can influence our mental steadiness and then do everything our coach asks us to do. If we avoid turnovers and do what we have to do to take and make good shots, I think it can be enough for the victory."
With the Unics-Panathinaikos game being played simultaneously, do you want to hear score updates from Kazan?
"Personally, I want to know, because I know it won't affect my game. But everybody is different. We were in the same situation at the end of the regular season, needing a victory in Cantu. If we had lost there, since Bilbao won, we would have been eliminated. In that game, I told someone to tell me the other score, because I really wanted to know. It's important for me to know what to do exactly on the court in order to win. Others might react differently, or it might affect their concentration, but I want to know what's going on."
If Fenerbahce Ulker can reach the playoffs after all the obstacles, will it be a more dangerous team than ever?
"That's what I think. If this somehow turns out good for us and we are able to get into last eight teams, we would go on to face Barcelona. We can play with them, and besides we have nothing to lose. They would be 100-percent favorites, but I don't see them so solid as last year. They've had a lot of guys come in and go out of the roster. And to challenge them can be our advantage mentally, especially if you have quite a few scorers, like we do. But it's a long way from now, and we have to be focused on winning in Milan and hoping that Panathinaikos wins, too. If we get to the playoffs, everything is possible."