Women’s wheelchair basketball team dominates season’s first tournament

By Brian Atlas

The Illinois women’s wheelchair basketball team went into its first tournament of the season over the weekend not knowing what to expect. The Illini won the five-team tournament in Baltimore, Md., and are thrilled to be off to a fast start.

“Any time you can be off to a 5-0 start is a good thing,” head coach Mike Frogley said.

The women’s team won its five games with scores of 58-18, 50-23, 46-6, 50-17 and 54-40 against the Bennett Blazers, United Spinal Liberty, Steel City Starz, Charlottesville Cardinals and University of Alabama, respectively.

First year player Arley McNeney led the women in scoring in four of the five games, averaging 18.75 points in those four games. In the opening game against the Blazers, McNeney scored eight points. McNeney started her Illinois career off in an impressive fashion, and all the rookies exceeded expectations for their first tournament.

“As young as that group is, they really dominated from a defensive boards prospective,” Frogley said. “If (the opponents) have only one shot at the basket, they’d better be sharp.”

Despite the favorable score in the first game, Frogley knew that his team started off playing sloppy defense and that the Illini would need to improve if they expected to win the tournament.

“There were a few defensive lapses,” Frogley said about the first game against the Bennett Blazers. “We weren’t as court-aware, and we weren’t as sharp.”

The young players were in large part successful due to the leadership of veterans Carlee Hoffman and Shelley Chaplin on the court, Frogley said. He added that their presence was vital during the championship game against Alabama. Hoffman had to make quick decisions because she often received the first pass backcourt and then had to break the press.

“(Hoffman) completely negated Alabama’s press, which had been dominant through the tournament,” Frogley said. “Her poise was critical.”

The biggest realization was the fact that the team’s play was developed and refined as the tournament went along.

“It was really neat to see people applying the things they were working on in practice,” said McNeney, a member of Canada’s national wheelchair basketball team. “I think (the rookies) were very well prepared and calm under the pressure.”

Overall, Chaplin was satisfied with the team’s play, too, but she said the athletes can still work on finishing shots better in order to maximize their offensive effort. She added that there’s plenty of time left in the season to improve that aspect.

In the championship game, McNeney knew she had to play tough, which her teammates said she accomplished. The Illini will be looking for a strong post presence from McNeney throughout the season.

“Especially against Alabama,” McNeney said. “Alabama plays (at) a really fast, physical pace. They like to run and muscle you for chair position.”

McNeney said the tournament didn’t feel like an opening tournament but felt like a mid-season tournament because of the communication that is stressed in practice. McNeney scored many of her points from a pick-and-roll, a play she often worked with Hoffman.

Frogley appreciated McNeney’s contribution to the opening tournament, especially in the championship game versus Alabama.

“(McNeney’s) strength is her ability to focus in the moment, her way to play in the moment,” Frogley said, emphasizing her role in the “little parts” of the game.

“That allowed her to put together an overall great game.”