Wheelchair basketball comes up short in national tournament

By Peter Romanchuk

Despite a couple of wins in the national tournament, the Illini men’s wheelchair basketball team fell just short of capturing a national title this weekend.

Illinois traveled to the Brewer Fieldhouse in Columbia, Mo., for the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. Confident and prepared, the Illini looked to wrestle away the title from the defending champions, Wisconsin-Whitewater.

The team opened the weekend Thursday against Edinboro. The Illini grabbed a lead early thanks to solid shooting performances from senior Nik Goncin and sophomore Ryan Neiswender. Illinois combined its offense with a stifling, high-pressure defense, leading 38-27 at halftime despite a miraculous one-handed 3-point toss by Edinboro’s Isaiah Moore.

Illinois kept Edinboro at arms-length and cruised to a 70-39 victory. Head coach Matt Buchi was pleased with his team’s effort.

“(Thursday’s game) was good for us because we were able to get all of the guys to play some minutes,” Buchi said. “It was a good starting point to get the blood flowing a little bit and get the bench playing.”

Texas-Arlington was up next. The teams traded blows, even though the Mavericks held a slim lead for a majority of the first half. The Illini struggled shooting early, a problem Buchi diagnosed and adjusted for the second half.

“We were trying to force big plays to happen for us instead of being patient,” Buchi said. “We were 0-for-7 from the 3-point line, so we were trying not to go for three and go (instead) for those two-point buckets.”

Illinois trailed Texas-Arlington by three at halftime. The Mavericks led most of the second half until two free throws from Goncin gave the Illini their first lead of the half with about two minutes to play.

With only seconds remaining in the game, Illinois caught the Texas-Arlington defense napping. Following a short-range bucket by Texas-Arlington’s Andreas Kraft, the Mavericks failed to pick up Ryan Juguan, who flew down the court, picked up a long toss from Goncin and laid the ball in the bucket to give Illinois the 58-57 lead and win with five seconds left.

With the win, Illinois earned a spot in the title game against Wisconsin-Whitewater.

“We felt and knew we were completely prepared for the game, and we knew that it would be a fight,” Buchi said. “I told (the team) that this is a prize fight, and the guys with the belt are going to be coming out and trying to get the first swing, so we have to be able to duck and move and stay in this.”

The Illini shot lights out in the early stages of the game, going on a 6-0 run and pushing the pace of play in the transition game. However, Illinois’ shooting success would be short-lived. Whitewater players David Fleming and Derrick Bisnett dominated in the paint and the Warkhawks led 36-21 at halftime.

Whitewater’s bigger players took advantage of their size. The Illini were sparked late by a series of defensive stops from sophomore Derek Hoot and a 3-point bucket from Goncin. A couple of made free-throws and a three-point play from Kyle Gribble clinched the championship for Wisconsin-Whitewater with a 68-55 win.

Despite falling short, Buchi was proud of the way his team fought. Illinois had a hard-fought season and the head coach knows that this experience will help the program in the future.

“I’ve got a great group of guys, and I didn’t really have to say much (regarding the loss),” Buchi said. “We had gone from a team that struggled early in the season to playing in the national championship game and playing with a championship team.”

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