Wheelchair basketball regular season closes with big weekend

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Illinois’ Nik Goncin (3) attempts a shot during the wheelchair basketball game v. Missouri at the ARC on Friday, Feb. 13, 2015. Illinois won 53-46.

By Peter Romanchuk

The Illinois men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams will travel south to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for a series of games beginning Friday and ending Saturday night.

Both teams will play a total of three games within a 24-hour period. Both Illini teams start the weekend Friday night against Whitewater-Wisconsin. The following evening, both squads will continue tournament play against Alabama and Texas-Arlington on Saturday.

It was business as usual Wednesday morning at the ARC, as the two teams flew up and down the court during scrimmages in what men’s coach Matt Buchi called an “in-between” practice. Buchi stressed the importance of the final practices before the weekend games.

“We want to make it as game-like as possible, because the more we play game-like, the more comfortable we are in that spot,” Buchi said. “I’d hate for them to get relaxed and then have to go high intensity in the game.”

Women’s head coach Stephanie Wheeler underscored many similar sentiments.

“What’s going to be required of us is to play with a lot of effort, a lot of communication, a lot of heart, and those things are skills just like shooting or a pick and roll,” Wheeler said. “We have to come into practice and be able to execute those things.”

Opposing defenses will be sure to take note of the Illini’s leading scorers, seniors Nik Goncin for the men and Helen Freeman for the women.

Goncin not only leads his team in points per game (21.2), but also assists (2.75) and rebounds (5.8). Along with his on-court skill, Goncin has become a team leader and knows how to approach a weekend of play.

“I think not telling people that they’re making mistakes, more so reminding them before the mistakes happen (is what I provide to the team),” Goncin said.

The women’s team will rely on senior Helen Freeman, whom Wheeler called an outstanding player and phenomenal scorer. With a scoring average of just over 16 points per game and free throw percentage above 70 percent, it’s easy to see why she has earned that praise. However, the English-born graduate student echoes the response of fellow men’s scoring leader Goncin.

“I’m just trying to be a good leader, and focus on the process that’s going to help us get the best result,” Freeman said.

The upcoming weekend pits the men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams against foes that they have played frequently in 2015. The familiarity allows both Illinois coaches to set a game plan for their opponents. Buchi has created a defensive strategy he believes will minimize a physical disadvantage of the men’s lineup.

“We’re not a big group,” Buchi said, “We’ve got to play really hard man-to-man to push them out to the 3-point line so that size doesn’t matter to us.”

With respect to the women’s matchups, Wheeler is more concerned with her squad’s communication and effort above anything else.

“A lot of the stuff we have to do well are intangibles,” Wheeler said. “When we do those intangible things like having a lot of communication, playing with heart, effort and focus, I think that the on-court skills take care of themselves.”

Each Illini squad has been off for a couple of weeks. With the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball tournament just around the corner, this weekend will serve as the final tune-up before Illinois competes in March for a national title.

“This is going to be the ultimate milestone of where we are,” Goncin said, “There’s no going back at this point because we only have two weeks (left in the season).”

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