‘Very disappointing’ weekend ends Illini season

Illinois players get ready to warm up before their semifinal game against Edinboro on Friday evening. Beck Diefenbach

Illinois players get ready to warm up before their semifinal game against Edinboro on Friday evening. Beck Diefenbach

By Josh Birnbaum

Ten minutes into the semifinal game of the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament on Friday, the No. 2 Illinois men’s wheelchair basketball team was dominating No. 3 Edinboro, 23-9. As if the switch went off, however, the Illini faltered and lost, 58-41.

“Very simply put, gentlemen, that was the worst loss ever against a lower ranked team by far,” head coach Mike Frogley said to the team after the loss.

They played the next day against No. 4 Southwest Minnesota State, but also lost 59-56, ultimately earning the fourth place title.

“This weekend, to say the least, was very disappointing,” player Brandon Wagner said. “We put in a lot of time and work and made a lot of sacrifices and to come away with fourth … it sucks.”

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A total of nine teams competed during the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament held March 22-24 in Edinboro, Pa. Top-seeded Wisconsin-Whitewater took first place.

Despite playing well in the first ten minutes of the game on Friday against Edinboro, the Illini struggled the rest of the game. They missed all 10 of their free throws, committed 12 turnovers and shot 40 percent from the field in the second half.

Team co-captain Steve Serio had a relatively good game scoring 23 of his team’s 41 points. He was still disappointed with how the team played.

“On stats it’ll look like I had a pretty good weekend,” Serio said. “I thought I played really well, but it doesn’t matter. It just means that I have to play better next time.”

Illinois’ second game against Southwest Minnesota State was much closer than its previous loss. The Illini were ahead 31-22 at the half, but soon SMSU caught up and Illinois found itself down 55-54 with 42.7 seconds to go.

The Illini couldn’t overcome their opponent, however, possibly due to some bad calls in the final moments of the game, coach Frogley believes.

“The officials down the stretch made it very difficult for us to maintain our lead and then to get our lead back,” Frogley said. “I thought our guys played well enough to win.”

The disappointing finish at this year’s tournament is reminiscent of the 2005 tournament, when Illinois also finished fourth.

“We just didn’t play up to what our standard was for the year and we just couldn’t bring it all together at one time,” senior Paul Ward said. “It’s just as frustrating as the past four years have been.”

The losses were especially disappointing to Ward and fellow seniors Denny Muha, Josh George and Brian Sheehan, who played their last games at the tournament. They have either finished their years of eligibility or are moving on to graduate school.

“It was my pleasure and honor to be your coach,” Frogley said to the departing players after they finished their last game.

Since the season is now over, the men have two weeks off without any lifting or basketball practice. But April will be a busy month for them, filled with exhibition games and the Ultimate Basketball Challenge, to be held at Huff Hall, April 11 at 7 p.m.

At the UBC, the wheelchair men’s and women’s teams will face the able-bodied Illini basketball teams and will also hold an autograph session at the end of the scrimmages.

As for next year, the men will be getting a class of top-notch recruits, and Frogley hopes to slowly rebuild the team after he loses four veterans this year.

“We had a great recruiting class,” Frogley said. “We’re going to be strong again next year from a talent perspective, but I don’t want to be like Kansas basketball with (coach Bill) Self where we have these great recruiting classes but end up underachieving. That’s just not what we are as a team, as a program.”