The Daily Illini

Wheelchair basketball finding its rhythm heading into winter break

By Thomas Polcyn

Tweet- #Illini wheelchair basketball looks to build on successful pastBy Thomas Polcyn

It was not all that long ago the women’s wheelchair basketball team fell just short of a national title, finishing second to Alabama in the 2015 national championship game.

Relying on experience and strong team leadership, the Illini have made it their goal to win it all this year.

“So far we’re feeling good about our season,” said assistant coach Kate Rougeau. “We are winning the games we should, and with our experience we know we don’t need to peak until March. We are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were last season and it helps so much to have mostly the same team coming back.”

To date the women have played in three tournaments, and will have four more after winter breakRB. The team has a .500 record of 5-5 RBbut have already played some of the top teams in the country.

Two wins came against a familiar opponent — the Crimson Tide.

Captain Gail Gaeng has been the big story to this point, mainly due to her offensive play. She leads the team in points, rebounds and assistsRB.

The senior forward is shooting 45 percent – just one percent shy of reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry’s career rateRB.

The men’s team is 4-5 but has been playing well as of late.

The men’s team weathered the absence of their head coach, Matt Buchi, who was out for several weeks at the beginning of the season after having kidney surgery.

Rougeau filled in for Buchi during his absence and replaced the team’s head coach when he traveled to Japan with the US men’s senior national team.

Now, with their head coach back and despite their poor start to the season, the Illini have a lot of confidence.

“We are better than a lot of the other teams out there,” said men’s captain Mak Nong. “We are going to do whatever it takes to win that national championship. With the talent on our team, that has always been the goal.”

Like the women’s team, the men will also have four more tournaments to prepare for nationals. Both teams will travel to Wichita, Auburn and Alabama and will have the opportunity to host one home tournamentRB.

Offensive output has been much more distributed for the men so far. Derek Hoot, who recently came back from playing with Buchi and the US national team, leads the Illini in scoring.

Spencer Heslop and Ryan Neiswender are right behind Hoot, and have contributed in other areas. Neiswender leads the team with assists, and Heslop leads in rebounds.

The Illini are satisfied with what they have done to this point, but know they will need to continue their work if they want to win the national title.

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