Dominating Defense

Medstar NRH Punishers advance to Division I semifinals, to meet familiar foe as NWBA Adult Division tournament kicks off

Medstar NRH Punishers advance to Division I semifinals, to meet familiar foe as NWBA Adult Division tournament kicks off

After suffocating the Golden State Road Warriors with a full-court press in Thursday’s opening round of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) Toyota Adult Division Wheelchair Basketball National Championships, the Medstar NRH Punishers will face a familiar East Coast Division I nemesis.

Up next, a semifinal clash against the New York Rollin’ Knicks.

MedStar NRH player Harsh Thakkar can’t wait — and hopes maybe, just maybe, the teams’ fifth meeting will have a better result.

After leading by just eight points at halftime, No. 3 seed MedStar NRH turned up the defense en route to a 59-33 victory over No. 6 seed Golden State in the Division I quarterfinals Thursday afternoon at Wichita Hoops in Bel Aire, Kan. The Punishers held the Warriors to 19 points in the first half and only 14 in the second half. The Adult Division tournament with Divisions I, II and III runs through Saturday, while the Junior Divisions (Prep, Varsity and Junior Varsity) play Friday through Sunday.

MedStar NRH player Harsh Thakkar competes during the 2022 NWBA Wheelchair Basketball Nationals in Wichita, KS. (Photo by Christopher Di Virgilio).

“For us, I think our defensive intensity was one of our biggest factors. We were able to get some great backcourt 10-second violations on them on a press,” says the 36-year-old Thakkar, an Alexandria, Va., resident. “Offensively, I believe we were able to spread the ball. We were able to pass and kind of not rush ourselves into allowing them to dictate our offense.”

But against No. 2 seed New York, which rolled to a 92-55 quarterfinal win over the No. 10 seed WASA Bucks, Thakkar says they’re going to play a totally different — and unconventional — defense in Friday morning’s semifinal. With the Knicks’ Paralympians— including Steve Serio and Patrick Anderson — they have to do something different.

According to the NWBA’s website, the two teams have met four times this season, and New York has all four by 10 points or less. In their most recent meeting, a February tournament hosted by MedStar, the Rollin’ Knicks won by seven.

 

“They’re a team that we see often being on the East Coast, so we know who their players are. We know where their threats are. It is different in terms of how we’re going to execute,” says Thakkar, who sustained a T12 spinal-cord injury in 2005 from a gunshot wound during a robbery after he was leaving a restaurant in Columbia, Md. “We’re not going to have the same approach. We’re going to try to work as a team to play an unconventional defense that prompts their non-Paralympian or non-top players to score.”

Golden State, meanwhile, couldn’t put together as strong of a game as its morning first-round one, which Marcus Oden helped the Road Warriors finish off.

Golden State’s Marcus Oden during the 2022 NWBA Wheelchair Basketball Nationals in Wichita, KS. (Photo by John Groth).

Before every free throw, Oden honors family members he’s lost.

Once the 36-year-old wheels to the foul line, he kisses his right palm and then touches his left arm tattoo of a name scroll.

A cursive “In Loving Memory” flows at the top and then features eight names of family members he’s lost over the past 15 years — with his grandfather, Norman, and grandmothers Rachel and Iva at the top, along with one aunt (Ann), three uncles (Jesse, Tony and Hank) and another family member named De’andre.

“They always, they always followed my basketball career. They always told me that if I kept going, I would do great things. So, every time I touch it, it reminds me just to live and play the game carefree,” Oden says.

He did just that in the team’s opener, as he calmly sank two game-sealing free throws with 11.8 seconds left to lift Golden State to a 58-53 victory over the No. 11 seed Courage Kenny Rolling Timberwolves.

Golden State finally returned after a two-year absence because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), and Oden could finally play with his regular wheelchair basketball team, a team he’s been on the last 11 years.

After playing with a San Diego-affiliated team last year, he appreciated the chance to make the trip with Golden State again.

“(It’s) better,” says Oden, a double amputee who was injured when he was pushed off train tracks in Richmond, Calif., in 1997. “There’s truly no better feeling than to play with the best athletes in the world on your level. That’s all we ever ask for is just to be able to compete with these great athletes, some Hall of Fame athletes, Hall of Fame coaches, real guys that we truly respect.”

Another Chance

Hanging in the air with his wheelchair sandwiched between two defenders near the foul line with 3 seconds left, Ryan Neiswender looked like he was stuck.

But the Charlotte Rollin’ Hornets player and U.S. Paralympic gold medalist stayed patient and figured his own way out of the jam.

He hung an extra second, let San Antonio ParaSport Spurs’ Nakia Merritte bounce off him on the left, gathered himself despite San Antonio’s Savoy Brown on the right and hoisted a shot from the lower part of his wheelchair.

Neiswender’s shot swished through the basket with no time left to lift No. 4 seed Charlotte to a 55-54 Adult Division II quarterfinal victory over No. 5 seed San Antonio at Wichita Hoops in Bel Aire, Kan., on Thursday afternoon.

“I think half the time that could’ve been called an offensive foul. Sometimes it could’ve been called a defensive foul, or you just play on. And I think that they [the referees] wanted to let the game play out itself, which I think is the beautiful way to do it,” Neiswender says. “So, yeah, hung there and on my way down, I caught my balance and put it up and it went in. And you stay composed, right? Whether there’s two seconds left, when you play in the Paralympics, when you play on all the national stages, you get to a place where the moment is normal. You’ve played that story in your head so many times that you just play it like any other possession.”

Charlotte (2-0) rallied from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit and from down seven in the final 2 minutes and 50 seconds to pull out the win. The Rollin’ Hornets advanced to play in one of Friday’s semifinals.

A gold medalist on last year’s U.S. men’s Paralympic wheelchair basketball team, the 27-year-old Neiswender just joined the Rollin’ Hornets this past September after he and his wife, Lauren, moved to Charlotte, N.C.

He admitted the last minute against was nearly the worst moment of his life. Neiswender committed two major mistakes — a turnover and a foul — inside the last minute.

Tied at 51, he threw the ball away on an inbounds play with less than 50 seconds to go, and Brown scored to put San Antonio up 53-51 with 25.5 seconds remaining.

Neiswender atoned that, though. San Antonio fouled him, and he hit both free throws to tie the game at 53 with 19.6 seconds remaining.

Then, with 7.7 seconds remaining, he fouled Brown with San Antonio in the bonus. Brown made one of two free throws to put the Spurs up 54-53.

Charlotte advanced the ball to halfcourt, called a timeout and set up a play. But after the inbounds, Neiswender said the play broke down, and he drove inside with wheelchairs hitting each other.

“What I would say is it was a bang-bang play, and I knew I had a shot. Like, I knew I needed to put up a shot, right?” says Neiswender, who was born with arthrogryposis, a muscle disorder that prevents joints in his legs from developing properly. “Like the one thing that you don’t want to do in the fourth quarter down one with like two seconds left is not got a shot. So, I put it up and was fortunate enough to make it.”

 

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