It has been the most memorable season for Lithuanian powerhouse Zalgiris Kaunas since the turn of the century, and as such, for all of the players on its roster. One of them is a hometown hero, small forward Edgaras Ulanovas, who will, like the rest of his teammates, taste the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four for the first time in his career. This has been the best all-around EuroLeague campaign for the 26-year old, who is playing in his fourth season with the club and in the competition. Not only did Ulanovas have career-high numbers in most statistical categories, but also delivered gems during the season such as a buzzer-beating game-winner, a game-saving last-second block, and a playoff Game 4 MVP performance. As the feel-good story of the season, Zalgiris now prepares for the club's first Final Four appearance in almost two decades. "We can be underdogs, that’s normal to think because we don’t have experience, it is our first Final Four," Ulanovas said in this EuroLeague.net interview. "We are not one of those teams that will come and watch what others do. We are going to try our best and show what we can do. We will fight. We are not going to be spectators at the Final Four, that’s for sure."
Edgaras, for a hometown boy from Kaunas – and someone who did so much to make this happen – how does it feel to be taking Zalgiris to the Final Four?
"First of all, nobody expected this from us. Nobody even expected us to get into the playoffs. When we faced Olympiacos, nobody expected us to win, but I think we proved during the regular season that we can beat bigger teams and that we can play good on the road, not only at home. So, step by step, game by game, and a team like Zalgiris needs to go step by step, we used every opportunity to get better. And now, we are in the Final Four. We, the players, don’t have much experience. It will be the first time for us, so we don’t know what to expect, but we proved we are capable of playing good basketball and we are looking forward to competing at the Final Four."
What about the city? It’s always been an electric place for basketball. How excited are people there these days?
"The feeling is great. Kaunas is celebrating. People are very happy. Everybody is very happy to have a Lithuanian team at the Final Four after a long period. So, the feeling is great, but you cannot be too happy because there are still things to come. We don’t want to celebrate too early; we need to think about the semifinal and to fight against Fenerbahce. Lately, we felt there was more excitement than usual. There were even more people supporting us than usual. The last few games of the regular season the gym was full and when the playoffs started, we got a lot of support from the stands, a lot of support from the city. Everybody watched, everybody followed. We felt it, and that was great because when you are in the playoffs, when you are in big games, you need to have support and need to feel it. Now, that support is even greater. Everybody is talking about trying to go to Belgrade. Not everyone will be able to come, but we know everybody will be supporting us from Kaunas and Lithuania. This is very important for the club, the city and our country."
You have been a cornerstone of this team for four years now. What made the difference for Zalgiris this season?
"Actually, our club tried to keep its main, key players last summer, and it is very important to keep the core of the locker room. So, we had a lot of players who stayed, especially us Lithuanian guys, and a couple of guys like Kevin Pangos, who stayed for their second season and who is very good in the locker room. It is important to have a good locker room. In the beginning of the season, things were not as easy, we had trouble in the Lithuanian League and in the EuroLeague, but the new guys who came for their first year here did not rush things. That was important. Sometimes you have bad days, sometimes better days, but they kept their patience. This is very important, to trust the system, trust the locker room, trust the coaching staff. I think the way we played and the fact we qualified for the Final Four is because we have a very good locker room. The guys are amazing as players, but also as people and as human beings."
You personally had your best numbers ever in the EuroLeague this season. Was that just the logical next step for you or did you do something different this season to raise the level of your game?
"I tried to do everything. Especially last summer, I worked out a lot. I went to the United States and that was a very good experience for me. I met a few NBA players and coaches, I saw everything from the other side, which was a very good experience. And I made my debut with the Lithuanian national team, too. But also, like you said, this was my fourth season. One more year of experience as every year you try to do better. And in the locker room, I have a bigger voice. That’s also good. I think experience is a very important thing and this helped me a lot. But, as I said, you can have bad days and you can have better days, but you cannot stop working. You cannot stop believing you can get better, and you can never stop because in basketball things change quickly. You can be losing by 10 or 15 points, but in three minutes you can make a run and everything changes. It is important for many reasons to never stop."
Your coach, Sarunas Jasikevicius, would say that the players are the biggest key to success. But from your point of view, how much of this historic moment is about what he has done on the bench and preparing you guys?
"I have said a lot of times that I think he did an amazing job. But I cannot say one thing is a key to success. It starts with players and coaching, then goes to the medical staff, athletic trainers, fans, everyone in the building. It is very important to have friendly people in your environment, supporting you. Of course, Sarunas Jasikevicius did a lot of good things for our team. It started in the previous season when we had some tough losses, but also great wins. He made us believe more. He put the winning mentality in our heads, which is very important."
Your next stop is Belgrade and the Final Four. Some people would say Zalgiris is an underdog. What’s your opinion?
"We can be underdogs, that’s normal to think because we don’t have experience, it is our first Final Four. Fenerbahce, CSKA, Real Madrid are huge teams who have been at the Final Four for many years. But we got into the playoffs, we believed in ourselves, we fought like crazy and we kept thinking: 'Why not? Why not?' We are not one of those teams that will come and watch what others do. We are going to try our best and show what we can do. We will fight. We are not going to be spectators at the Final Four, that’s for sure."
You guys played 12 games decided by 6 points or fewer – and won 10 of them. Does that fact give you a lot of confidence heading to Belgrade?
"Not sure if that gives us confidence, but we did have games where we played well at the end. The main thing is to do your best from the first minute. You have to understand that small details can decide everything, and when you have close games, to stick together as much as possible, support each other and give your maximum on every ball. Every point is important, even if you make a mistake, maybe you can make a good foul. Use any opportunity you have. I think we made a huge step in these small details, and that’s what made us better. Because in basketball these days, at this level in the EuroLeague, you need to do your best on every possession, every defense, every offense. Everything is so important, every ball, every preparation. And character is important. We tried to improve every game and every practice, and I think it showed this season. So, winning those kinds of close games was important. And for sure, winning them is nice and much better than losing them."
You face defending champion Fenerbahce in the semis. You have each won on the other’s court this season. What did you learn from those games about Fenerbahce that you want to use in the semifinal?
"I missed first game in Istanbul, but played in the second one. That’s an amazing team, the biggest team in Europe. Everybody knows that they have a great coach, players and the entire roster. They also have a lot of size and are very good on defense and they have showed that. I think small details will be crucial, and sometimes, in the playoffs and in the Final Four, I think it is all about the effort. It is more about the effort, about the fight, how much you are going to give from your heart on the court. I think effort can be more important that the tactics and the basketball stuff."
Fenerbahce also has a big edge in Final Four experience, of course. Does Zalgiris have other advantages? Less pressure, for instance?
"Thinking about it, the closer the Final Four gets, and once we travel to Belgrade, we are going to start feeling it all. I think if we play good basketball in the semifinal, if it will be close and we lose, we are going to be very disappointed. So, we cannot say we have less pressure, because we really want to perform good. Fenerbahce has a lot of tall players and a really good defense that creates a lot of advantages for them. But we showed that we can play good team basketball, move the ball as quick as possible, and that’s what we need to do. And we have to do well in rebounds. Those are some of the advantages we can use, but it will be very hard to do that. But we need to try."
Being only two wins away from winning its second EuroLeague crown. What would that mean to you, Zalgiris fans and to people in Lithuania in general?
"I actually cannot imagine. I remember the last time Zalgiris won, in 1999. It was amazing. Everyone in Lithuania was celebrating like crazy. It is a big thing, and to win the EuroLeague is every player’s dream, especially in Europe. And you never know, maybe you will have only one chance in your career to participate in the Final Four, so you have to do the best you can. But we cannot be thinking about winning it all. The only team we can be thinking about is Fenerbahce. That’s what we did in the playoffs, thought about Game 1, then Game 2. We went game by game. It is hard to think what is going to happen if we win, but of course that we would love to do that and win. We made it this far, we had some great games and had some bad ones, but we cannot relax now. We have to do even more than what we have been doing thus far. It will be an amazing experience and we are going to try our best."