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Ali Ibanez and Kaitlyn Eaton

Illini wheelchair basketball players praise coaches, UIUC

The Team USA men’s wheelchair basketball team—led by a combined 13 points from Illini alumni Steve Serio, Brian Bell and Ryan Neiswender–routed Algeria 86-25 in the final game of pool play on Monday in the Tokyo Paralympics.

Team USA was 4-1 in pool play, and will face Turkey in the quarterfinals on Tuesday night.

Serio, who had 15 points in the previous game—a 66-38 win over Australia—had two points in the victory over Algeria, while Neiswender had five and Bell six.

Serio is himself an icon in wheelchair basketball. The 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo will be his fourth—having competed for Team USA at the Paralympic Games in 2008, 2012 and 2016—and he won a bronze medal with Team USA in London and gold in Rio in 2016. He credits the coaching he received at Illinois for his success.

“I learned how to be the best version of myself at University of Illinois – not only as an athlete on the court, but as a person and leader off the court. Wheelchair basketball was started at University of Illinois and one of the reasons that I chose to attend that program is because of the deep ties that it has to wheelchair basketball and all of adaptive sports. We have an obligation as Paralympic athletes to further the Paralympic movement and to allow the next generation to have more opportunities than what we have. I learned all those values at University of Illinois.”

Meanwhile, the women’s wheelchair team routed Algeria on Sunday, 62-21.

The U.S. ended Group B play in third place with a 2-2 record. Next up for the Americans is a quarterfinal game against Canada, which finished second in Group A with a 3-1 record.

Since 1988, either Canada or the U.S. has won all but one Paralympic gold medal, with Canada taking three and the U.S. four. The lone exception was Germany in 2012.

“It means we might get a little bit of a tougher match-up in the quarters, but you’ve got to go through anyone to get to the gold-medal game,” said Kathleen Dandeneau who plays for Canada but trains at the University of Illinois.

All 12 players on the U.S. roster scored during the game, including Illini Ali Ibanez and Kaitlyn Eaton.

Like Serio, Eaton praised her UIUC training and coaches.

“Competing collegiately helped prepare me for the Paralympics because it allowed me to play with and against some of the greatest players in the world, … but the one person who I owe most of the credit to is my mentor, (Illini basketball coach) Stephanie Wheeler. She taught me most of what I know now. She allowed me to be a leader for our team, she allowed me to try new things on the court, and most importantly, she taught me that I am more than just a picker and a sealer. She is the type of coach that takes any player, no matter their classification, and turns them in to a well-rounded player that can do it all. I was able to feel confident on the court in any situation because she believed in me.”

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