Illini of the Week: Men’s wheelchair basketball team

Editor’s Note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down on Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Student-athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

It didn’t come as a surprise when the Illinois men’s wheelchair basketball team won the national championship on March 20. The Illini defeated their rival, defending champion Wisconsin-Whitewater, 66-59 in Marshall, Minnesota.

“We have a history as the ‘winningest’ team in all of wheelchair basketball,” senior captain Steve Serio said. “We were ready and we prepared ourselves the correct way. But this year was special. This year was different.”

Serio has seen the team through a lot of experiences in his four-year career.

He was specifically proud that they went undefeated this year, which Serio said does not happen often.

“This season we basically played a completely different style. We had a lot more high-paced tempo and we had some great guards,” Serio said. “We just switched it up right from the beginning.”

One of the biggest differences for Serio, however, was the international makeup of the team.

“We usually only have around two people from overseas, but this year about 25 percent of our team was from another country. We had players from Australia, New York and Japan. We’re all so different but we really came together.”

The players’ ability to rely on each other was what gave them the necessary boost to win in the second half of the championship game. The Illini were down eight at halftime, but Serio led the team to a comeback, helping them score 42 points in the second half.

“We came together as a team so much more this year. Last year we were cocky, but this year we bonded and we knew what one another were thinking,” junior Brian Bell said.

Bell added that this ideology helped the team develop a strategy.

He also said their teamwork on defense helped them defeat Wisconsin-Whitewater, because they tired Whitewater out by playing a full-court game the entire time.

“We found their weakness and used it against them,” Illinois head coach Mike Frogley said.

“Wisconsin-Whitewater, they had a lot better players than us individually, but we were a much better team than them. They couldn’t touch us because we were such an unstoppable force — a unit,” Serio added.

The unit worked tirelessly through the second half in order to reach the ultimate goal: getting its revenge on Whitewater and, to make up for last year, cutting the nets down in front of them.

“Cutting down the nets was such a great moment,” Serio said. “It was when I finally realized who we were and just how far we came, just how hard we worked. It finally sunk in that we all accomplished this, together.”

Team members may have been proud to reclaim their national title, but they did not let it go to their heads at all, Frogley said.

“They are the most humble group of any team I have coached,” Frogley said. “They also recognize everyone who has helped them in any way, shape or form, from trainers, to public relations, to coaches, to fans they are just always thanking everyone, which is a great trait of any athlete.”

Frogley thinks the team will still be strong next year, but without the four seniors, the dynamic will change.

“You can’t recreate a team like this,” Frogley said. “They are a really smart group of players and their work ethic is phenomenal. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime teams.”