Led by Illini, U.S. women take gold in wheelchair b-ball

By Jon Gluskin

The U.S. Women’s Basketball Team was not the only basketball team taking gold in Athens. There was another victorious team, and this one is made up of Illini – both alums and current students.

On Monday, Sept. 27, the U.S. Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team defeated Australia 56-44, cementing the gold in the Paralympics.

After losing the first game in the preliminary round to Australia by one point, the United States rattled off five consecutive wins on its way to the medal.

“That loss could have been very detrimental to us, but we came together and beat every other team that we came across in the tournament,” said Christina Ripp, Illini student and assistant coach. “We were definitely our own toughest competitors because we had the ability to make or break our team, but we definitely overcame that to win.”

The semi-final match was the toughest test for the U.S. team. They faced a Canadian powerhouse that had won the gold the past five Paralympics.

In the gold medal game, Illini alumnae Jennifer Warkins and Janna Crawford, along with Ripp, led the team to a convincing victory, said assistant coach Robbie Taylor.

Warkins finished the game with 21 points, 15 rebounds and six steals. Ripp had 16 points and seven boards, and Crawford tallied nine points and 10 rebounds.

“We had to play each game like we were capable and not play to the level of the opponent,” Warkins said. “We had the attitude that we weren’t playing anyone, they were coming to play us.

“We started out slow in the pool play with an immediate loss and never looked back. We learned from that loss that our defense will win games for us, and it was something we could always fall back on, even when our shots weren’t falling.”

While the team filled out the offensive box scores, it was the defense that propelled the women.

In the gold medal game, the team barely missed head coach Ron Lykins’ goal of keeping opponents from scoring over 40 points.

Ripp said the keys to her team’s success were teamwork and defense.

“Most of us have been playing together for years, either at the U of I or on international teams, so that made it easier for us to play together as a team,” Ripp said. “Also, our team is awesome on the defensive end. It was hard for most teams to break down our different defenses.”

Victory was even sweeter for the U.S. team because of the huge improvement over the squad’s performance at the Sydney’s Paralympics in 2000. The young team took fifth place there.

“I would have to say that experience and maturity is what set us apart this year compared to then,” Ripp said. “We were all much more focused this year and knew what we had to do to obtain our goal of winning the gold. We stayed much more grounded and didn’t get caught up in the hype that surrounds going to and being at the Paralympic Games.”

The other team members include Illinois alumni Patty Cisneros, Susan Katz, Teresa Lannon, Jana Stump and Stephanie Wheeler. The other current students are Carlee Hoffman and Emily Hoskins.

Warkins said another highlight of the Games was the Opening Ceremonies.

“They were sold out days before the event, and the Olympics didn’t even sell out, so that said a lot to us about the support of the Greek people,” Warkins said.

The U.S Women’s Team will be going after their fourth straight Women’s Division National Title this season.

The basketball team wasn’t the only team earning gold for the Illini. Illinois had 28 current and former athletes competing in Athens. The 28 athletes earned 20 medals – 14 gold, two silver and four bronze. If Illinois were in the rankings with the countries competing, it would have been in a tie for 24th place, Taylor said.

“Becoming a gold medalist is an accomplishment no one can take away from you,” Warkins said. “It is a wonderful feeling to stand on the podium at the end of the game and hear your anthem played.”