Illinois wheelchair basketball teams finish 1-2 in Alabama

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Illinois' head coach Matt Buchi talks with his players during a time-out at the wheelchair basketball game vs. Missouri at the ARC on Feb. 13. 

By Peter Romanchuk

The Illinois men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams had faced all this weekend’s opponents before, but couldn’t convert that familiarity into more than a single win each.

Wisconsin-Whitewater, defending national champion in men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball, highlighted the tournament, which was held at the Foster Auditorium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Both Illinois teams finished the weekend 1-2. The men’s lone victory came against Alabama, and the women’s victory came against Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Men’s head coach Matt Buchi remained optimistic about the team’s season.

“We have the skill, the personnel, and the physical conditioning to bring home a national championship,” Buchi said in an email. “It will all come down to mental toughness.”

The men began tournament play with a tough 57-56 loss against Wisconsin-Whitewater on Friday. Toward the end of the game, with the teams separated by a single point, the men tried to steal a win in the dying moments.

“We held our own defensively, and had an opportunity to win it at the end,” Buchi said. “We ran a un-practiced sideline play that didn’t work out.”

Tournament play continued Saturday for the men against Texas-Arlington. The Mavericks capitalized on the Illini’s offensive and defensive mistakes on their way to a 67-52 victory.

Following the losses, Buchi implored his team to refocus its energy and commit to the system, despite the frustration of back-to-back defeats.

“After the close loss and then failure to execute the game plan, we made it a goal to stick to the plan of offensive reads and committing to defensive matches,” Buchi said. “As a result, we played like a championship team (in the third game against Alabama).”

Heeding Buchi’s advice, the Illinois men ended the weekend on a high note with a 16-point win over Alabama. The key component of the victory was the Illini’s cagey defense — it held the Crimson Tide to a meager 40 points and propelled Illinois to a 56-40 win.

The Illinois women’s team was also in action against Wisconsin-Whitewater on Friday. The game was a defensive battle, with each squad reluctant to surrender any ground to its opponent. In the closing moments, the Illini pulled away, finishing off the Warhawks 46-34.

Saturday brought about two new challenges for head coach Stephanie Wheeler’s team. Up first was a matchup against Texas-Arlington. The Illini struggled throughout the game with their focus and execution, losing 58-43. Wheeler was not one to mince words following her team’s defeat.

“I think the loss against UTA was probably one of the worst games we had all season,” Wheeler said.

Next on the schedule for the Illinois women was Alabama. Hoping to erase the memory of their previous performance, the Illini brought a renewed intensity to the court. They matched Alabama’s execution and focus throughout the game, leaving Wheeler pleased despite the 62-57 loss.

“It was an up-and-down weekend, and we had some different things thrown our way that could’ve been distractions,” Wheeler said. “We did a really nice job of bouncing back from those things. I think our game against Alabama was the best game we played all season.”

Both the men’s and women’s teams now turn their respective attentions to the NIWBT national championships at Missouri next week. Buchi and Wheeler plan on using the final week of practice to fine-tune their teams’ game plans.

“Our half-court defense and our full-court pressing defense (is what we are going to focus on in practice),” Wheeler said. “Our offense is going to find a way to score points, but defense is where we can make our biggest improvements.”

Round-robin play for nationals begins Thursday and concludes Saturday afternoon with the men’s and women’s championship games.

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