Wheelchair basketball teams seek national title

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Illinois’ Ryan Juguan (1) makes a pass during the wheelchair basketball game v. RIC at the ARC on Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015. Illinois lost 64-41.

The familiar “I-L-L, I-N-I” chant rang out in Gym 1 at the ARC Tuesday morning, and the men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams began practice in the same manner they have all season. However, the challenge awaiting them this weekend is anything but routine.

Both squads will play in the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament beginning Thursday and concluding Saturday with the championship games. The tournament is hosted by the University of Missouri, in Columbia, Missouri.

With the opening games only days away, players on both teams talked about maintaining focus on the brink of the biggest tournament of the season.

“I’m a veteran. I’ve seen many situations where, as a team, we didn’t maintain our focus,” senior Ryan Juguan said. “Having that experience makes you want to savor everything before nationals so that we can be doing everything 100 percent.”

Still, even for a seasoned player like Juguan, it can be difficult not reflecting on past years and remembering how he arrived at this point.

Coaches can even find themselves caught up in the moment. However, after winning two national championships at Illinois, men’s head coach Matt Buchi understands what it takes.

“The guys need me to be prepared and confident just as much as I need them to be,” Buchi said in an email. “It will be business as usual.”

Women’s head coach Stephanie Wheeler is no stranger to high-pressure games either. Wheeler led Illinois to three national titles in the early 2000s as a player and played for the national Paralympic team in the 2002 World Championships. But Wheeler said in an email that her accomplishments don’t give the team an advantage on the national stage.

In terms of tactics, both teams took advantage of this final week of practice to improve subtleties in their offensive and defensive game plans after last weekend’s games in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Each squad finished 1-2; the men’s lone win came against Alabama and the women’s team beat Wisconsin-Whitewater.

All of the Illini’s opponents from that weekend will be competing in the NIWBT, which Buchi thinks will benefit his players.

“We have played the other college teams enough now where we have a good idea of what they are going to do and how we will defend it,” Buchi said.

For the women, Wheeler thinks her players’ attitudes will dictate the quality of the defense, rather than relying on a particular strategy.

“Our team is fully capable of playing great defense,” Wheeler said, “It’s up to us to have the mindset that ‘we are going to stop them’ and ‘we are great defenders.’”

Winning a national championship is an exciting thought for all members of the Illinois wheelchair basketball program.

The Illini men’s first game is Thursday against Edinboro. The Illinois women will begin playing against Texas-Arlington on Friday. Both teams’ schedules for the rest of the tournament depend on the results of their first games.

Wisconsin-Whitewater is the defending champion in both the men’s and the women’s fields, but Juguan knows anything can happen.

“It’s been a blessing. I wish I would’ve played sports earlier, but maybe it didn’t happen that way for a reason,” Juguan said. “I’m thankful to be here, but I want to take full advantage of the situation.”

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