|Titus Nicoara: "I think fans care about this" |
Gaz Metan Medias raised eyebrows in early October, when they clinched qualification to the EuroChallenge Regular Season at the expense of Russian side Ural Ekaterinburg.
They had lost the first leg of the qualifying tie, 69-67, and many were quick to write them off.
"A lot of people did not believe in us in the qualification with Ural, they thought we didn't have many chances, especially after we lost the first game at home," recalls Medias power forward Titus Nicoara.
That defeat can be partially attributed to opening night nerves, as the Romanian side do not carry huge European experience.
"Honestly, going into qualification with Ural we didn't know so much about the competition and the other teams but after the first game we started thinking that we can play (at this level) and we have a chance with every team," Nicoara explains.
"We played really well in Russia and after that win I think we had more courage, we started believing more in ourselves."
Medias won 97-92 in Ekaterinburg to secure a place in the Regular Season the hard way.
They are the only Romanian side - of the four that compete in the EuroChallenge this season - that had to go through qualification.
Two weeks into the Regular Season, they are also the only Romanian side to have won both their games and lie in first place in Group D.
They earned a hard-fought 92-89 victory in overtime over JDA Dijon in the premiere and followed up with a 70-68 victory on the road against Tartu Rock on Tuesday.
"We scouted the other teams and we played pretty well in the first two games, we deserved to win in my opinion," is Nicoara's assessment.
"[During qualification] we saw that the rest of the teams are not necessarily something extraordinary compared to our team, we were not sure at the beginning because they play in different championships."
Medias are, to a certain extent, victims of their own success. They did not count on playing in two competitions and have to cope with the difficulties this entails.
"It is hard, before the Tuesday game in Estonia (at Tartu Rock) we lost in the championship (against Oradea) and I think it has to do with us playing every three days," Nicoara says.
"Maybe we wouldn't have lost if we hadn't played overtime (in week 1, against JDA Dijon). But you need to prepare the game, go on the trip and so on, you don't have much time.
"Our biggest advantage is that we have 12 players who can all play."
The perfect start has whetted the team's appetite.
"We are 2-0 now and if we manage to beat Khimik at home next week we have a good chance to qualify. I think it's going to be a good tough game, Khimik have also won their first two games but all games in the group have been really close," the Romanian international says.
|Paul Graham and his Gaz Metan Medias teammates have caught a few by surprise, beginning with a 2-0 record, despite having to qualify just to play in the Regular Season|
"But everything is possible in this group, even the teams that have lost both their games lost them by one point or in overtime."
Medias also have their status in the domestic league to worry about. They are at the top of the standings with six wins in eight games and they have a point to prove.
"I would like us to play in the Romanian league finals because last year we lost in the semi-final," admits Nicoara.
"Of course everybody wants to win if they're playing in the final but every time we lose in the semi-final so first of all I want us to make the final and if we get a chance there, we'll take it."
Unlike the Romanian LNB finals, which have been a thorn in the side for Medias since last season's finale, they had no specific targets for the EuroChallenge - until now.
"After we've gone 2-0 I think everybody now wants to qualify to the next round.
"It's not going to be easy but after this start we have to try our best. I don't know what will happen, everything is like a bonus for us.
Expectations are now rising not only within the club, but among fans as well.
"In the first game there were a lot of people in the gym and now that they saw we've won away too and we're playing a good team like Khimik I expect the gym to be full," Nicoara says confidently.
"I think fans care about this; it gives a good image of the city and of Romania to be playing in Europe.
"Every international game is important for Romania, because our league is not so well known and this is a chance to prove that we also have a strong championship and we can compete in Europe."