Rallying Illinois men’s wheelchair basketball team settles with fourth in playoffs
March 13, 2017
Wheelchair basketball player Spencer Heslop’s father paced from left to right.
Hands in his pockets.
Back to arms crossed.
Hislop’s mother — also wearing a No. 24 jersey — was on the other side of bleachers.
As Heslop’s dad looked antsy in the purple stands at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater wearing one of his son’s old jerseys, Spencer, and the Illinois men’s basketball team were in an all-out-brawl with the University of Alabama for third place at the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball tournament.
Illinois was leading, 36-34, with 9:02 left in the game. It was the team’s first lead of the game after Heslop and Ryan Neiswender hit a combined three-straight 3-pointers for the team to help Illinois rally back from a 23-14 deficit in the first half.
Early in the game, Alabama was capitalizing on their height — particularly Michael Auprince — by collecting the offensive rebounds and hitting shots over Illinois’ heads.
But in Illinois’ rally attempt, the Illini applied the full-court press. They forced Alabama turnovers. They were hitting their shots — in defense or not — and finding their own rebounds. Neiswender also came alive by orchestrating Illinois’ offense and dishing passes to Spencer for an open layup or mid-range jumper.
Illinois kept its momentum for three minutes after taking the lead. But then Neiswender, perhaps a little too confident at the time, launched a 3-pointer from the left wing early in the shot clock.
The Illini scored only three points over the course of the next three minutes. Alabama scored 10, as Auprince and the team’s bigs were collecting rebounds, hitting shots over Illinois defenders and burning the shot clock.
Soon after, Alabama burned Illinois’ chances at third place. The Crimson Tide won, 57-47.
After the game, head coach Matt Buchi said the team spent its last huddle reflecting on the season and the seniors’ careers.
“It honestly, in the long run, doesn’t matter who wins the national championship,” Buchi said. “It’s all about the things you learn in the process while doing it.”
Prior to the third-place game, Illinois defeated No. 6 seed Edinboro University, 54-45, in overtime in a game that was overshadowed by Buchi’s unknown absence.
A day later, with Buchi rejoining the team on the sidelines, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, who hosted the tournament, handed Illinois a 60-49 loss to send the Illini to the third-place game.
As Alabama and its fans chanted after the last game, Illinois’ players hugged their family and friends. Spencer’s dad was no longer pacing.
“They’re successful to me,” Buchi said. “But we’ll know when they’re really successful in the next 15, 20 years when they start families, make good career, and they give back to their community.