Illinois women’s wheelchair basketball goes into nationals as top seed

Illinois’ Megan Blunk gets ready to take a layup during the game against Alabama at the Activities and Recreation Center on Feb. 12. The Illini won 56-47.

By Thomas Polcyn

Tweet- @IlliniWCBball holds top seed going into nationals. #Illini

It was just last year that the Illinois women’s wheelchair basketball team lost to Alabama in the national championship. Then and there, the Illini made it their goal to get back and win it all.

This year, they are looking for some revenge, and will have a good chance to achieve their ultimate goal of a national championship.

After a strong season — they beat defending champ Alabama three times this season — the Illini have put themselves in a good spot, earning the top seed for nationals.

The women’s bracket is composed of Illinois, Wisconsin-Whitewater, Alabama and Texas-Arlington.

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    Thanks to the Illini grabbing the top spot, they have secured a matchup in the semifinals with fourth-seeded Wisconsin-Whitewater.

    Illinois swept the season series with Whitewater and beat the Warhawks by 38 points in the teams’ most recent matchup. Despite their success against them, the Illini are not taking Whitewater lightly.

    “We know that we can’t overlook them,” women’s head coach Stephanie Wheeler said. “We know that as long as we play our game we should do well.”

    Texas-Arlington — whom Wheeler called her team’s “biggest challenge” — took the second seed in the tournament. This sets them up with a semifinal game against the defending national champion Alabama.

    Wheeler said that Texas-Arlington has been toughest all year, but that Alabama shouldn’t be overlooked. Despite losing some solid players, she still sees the Crimson Tide as a strong team that has the ability to match up against any team in the tournament.

    Winning for the seniors

    In addition to the extra motivation provided by the championship loss last year, the Illini also want to win it all for the team’s seniors.

    Four Illini will be playing in their final games: Gail Gaeng, Megan Blunk, Kendra Zeman and Olivia Morrison.

    “They deserve (a championship),” Wheeler said. “Since they’ve gotten here they have developed so much and have been through everything imaginable. They have gone through a lot of adversity and after seeing how far they’ve come it would be great to win it for them. The whole team wants to do it for them.”

    The seniors have contributed a lot this season, especially captain Gail Gaeng.

    She leads the team in points, rebounds and assists while also serving as one of the most vocal leaders on the team.

    Wheeler said that especially among the seniors that there is an extremely close bond and that they all want to win it for each other.

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