NWBT Day One

Tyler Thorns make their debut at the National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament


Online Exclusive posted Thursday, April 12, 2018 – 9:02pm

In the program’s first National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament (NWBT), the Tyler Thorns nearly stuck themselves into the Division III final four.

Tyler Thorns’ Francis Key during their debut games at the 2018 National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Christopher Di Virgilio).

After upsetting the No. 6 seed Ability 360 Phoenix WC Suns 59-55 in the first round, the No. 11 seed had a second straight game come down to the final minute.

This time, they couldn’t find the right stinging shot.

Tyler (Texas) missed all three of its game-winning chances in the final 23 seconds, falling 58-57 to the No. 3 seed RHI Pacers in the second round of the Division III Tournament Thursday afternoon at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Ky.

The 70th NWBT kicked off Thursday at the Kentucky Exposition Center with three adult divisions opening up play. The junior divisions start play at 8 a.m. ET today, while the adult divisions continue their semifinals today. The tournament runs through Sunday.

Tyler had a 57-54 lead thanks to Jacob Spillers’ inside bucket with 1 minute, 45 seconds to go. But RHI rallied back, with Kyle Killworth scoring a basket off a rebound with 1:11 to go and then John Rendon hitting a short right-side jumper with 40.6 seconds left to put them the Pacers ahead.

Trailing by a point with 23 seconds remaining, the Thorns’ Francis Key missed a short inside jumper. Still, Tyler had two other chances.

After RHI missed a free throw with 15.3 seconds left, the Thorns moved the ball downcourt and Key turned the ball over after he had a pass bounce off Jacob Spillers’ hands with 3 seconds left. RHI missed another free throw with 2.4 seconds remaining and, after a timeout; the Thorns couldn’t get off a shot as time expired.


Jacob Spillers, number 1, defends against the Ability 360 Phoenix WC Suns at the 2018 National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Christopher Di Virgilio).

“Coming in here, I did think we’d do well. Now, we can still do I guess pretty well. But I thought that, I thought that we would probably do a little better and I still think that. We came out really flat, myself, too. We were kind of asleep that second half. I don’t know what happened. I know I got in at like 5 a.m. I got about four hours of sleep maybe,” says Key, who was injured in a car wreck in Texas in 1994 that left him a T4/T5 paraplegic.

“I’m disappointed right now. I’m very encouraged about this team. First year sanctioned and we lost by one point to the number three team. Can’t be too upset at that. One point away from the final four, there’s a lot to build on.

And really, it’s now really getting going. I really expect us to take off. Hopefully this’ll be motivation and we’ll really attack next year.”

Still, just three years after the 40-year-old Key, who played for the Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks and won a national championship with them in 2007, and his friend/assistant coach Jon Duncan, who died last year, helped start the program, the team has made some major strides.

Earlier this year, Tyler defeated the then-No. 1 Division III team in the country and No. 2-seeded TIRR Memorial Hermann Hotwheels. Then, they made the NWBT. Now, they’ve won a game in it and still hope to do more damage.

Admittedly, Key was skeptical he’d even have a team for two years and that he’d succeed. Key had moved from Dallas to Tyler in 2014. Then, he got the itch to play basketball again and wanted to help others learn the game.

So, in 2015, he helped form a team in Tyler. For his first year, Key just wanted to get five guys so that they could technically play in a game. He got much more than that. Within three or four months, he had 12 players.

“Then to blow my mind you had people with potential,” says Key. “I was half-expecting people who would just drag them selves up and down the court with no ability to do anything. And then all of a sudden we’ve got all these guys who can actually play and who have this potential, they’re young and in-shape and able and I was like ‘wow’”.

Spillers is one of those young players. He was a major reason why the Thorns got that first win over Ability 360. The 20-year-old made a layup that put them up 59-55 with 20 seconds left and provided a scoring threat in both games.

Spillers developed osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that beings in the cells that form bones, in his right leg in high school. He had rotationplasty, a surgery where the bottom of his right femur, right knee and upper right tibia were surgically removed and his right lower leg was rotated 180 degrees and then attached to his right femur. He attaches a prosthetic to that femur.

Although Spillers has only played wheelchair basketball for a couple of years, he loves it.

“I liked how it kind of just gave me a new life, how I wasn’t able to be quite as active before, and it allowed me to be just as free as possible and do whatever I wanted to,” says Spiller, who only played soccer in high school before his injury.

So what’s helped the Thorns succeed? Spiller says they’ve improved their intensity in practices throughout the season, which has helped lead them to success late.

“I would definitely say how you push yourself in practice is how you push yourself in the games. So if you don’t have a strong intensity in practice, you won’t be able to bring that during the game,” Spillers says.

“I feel like that’s something we’ve really struggled with as a team. We were just kind of mediocrely going out and doing things until we brought the intensity to the team. And when we pushed, then we really started succeeding.”


TOURNAMENT UPDATE (Thursday morning and early afternoon)

All the top Adult Division I seeds advanced out of the first round Thursday morning. No. 1 seed New York rolled past No. 16 seed Mary Free Bed Pacers, 80-44, while the No. 8 seed Albuquerque Kings defeated ninth-seeded TIRR Memorial Hermann Hotwheels 63-42.

In the closest morning game, the University of Arizona rallied from a 14-point first quarter deficit to defeat the No. 13 seed Milwaukee Wheelchair Bucks 69-67. Tied at 67, the University of Arizona’s Carlos Pijuan slipped into the left side of the lane drove inside and made a lay-up with 3.9 seconds left.

Milwaukee inbounded the ball to half court, called timeout with 3.2 seconds left and set up a play, but No. 13 missed two short inside shots to tie the game.

In the top half of the bracket, the No. 5 seed Medstar NRH Punishers defeated the No. 12 seed Utah Wheelin’ Jazz 62-51.

The sixth-seeded Toronto Rollin Raptors defeated No. 11 seed Seattle Sonics 62-43, while the third-seeded Dallas Mavericks defeated No. 14 seed Golden State 67-30.

No. 7 seed Denver held off the 10th-seeded Missouri Predators 57-47, while the No. 2 seed Sacramento Rollin’ Kings cruised to an 82-48 victory over the No. 15 seed Shepherd Stealers.

Division II’s two first-round came in the bottom half of the bracket, as the No. 14 seed Toronto Rollin’ Raptors dropped the third-seeded Fort Lauderdale Sharks 6-353 and No. 11 seed Lakeshore Storm knocked off the fifth-seeded Magee Spokesmen 52-47.

The other six games went according to seeds. No. 7 Wisconsin Thunder defeated the No. 1 0 seed L.A. Hotwheels 51-45 and the No. 2 seed Nassau Kings defeated an exhibition team (the No. 15 seed Delaware Destroyers couldn’t make the tournament), 57-50.

Top seeded NMCSD Wolf Pack rolled to a 67-38 victory over the No. 16 seed Sportable Rim Riders. No. 8 seed Tampa Bay Strong Dogs defeated the No. 9 seed L.A. Clippers 55-45. The No. 4 seed Austin Rec’ers beat the No. 13 seed Charlottesville Cardinals, 64-33, and the No. 5 seed Charlotte Rollin’ Hornets defeated the No. 12 seed Maywood Kodiaks 60-46.

Division III had a couple of first-round upsets, as No. 13 seed Pittsburgh knocked off fourth-seeded Columbus WC Basketball Club 54-35, No. 9 seed Rockford defeated No. 8 seed Charlotte 53-33 and No. 11 seed Tyler Thorns beat the No. 6 seed Ability 360 Phoenix WC Suns 59-55.

Top seed Connecticut survived in a 37-35 victory over 16th-seeded Seattle, while No. 5 seed Harrisonburg knocked off No. 12 seed Triad 43-24.

The No. 3 seed RHI Pacers defeated the 14-seeded Chicago Skyhawks, 49-18. And the other two games went according to seeds, as No. 7 Triangle Thunder beat the 10th-seede Brooklyn Nets 68-51 and the No. 2 seed TIRR Memorial Hermann Hotwheels held on for a 49-41 win over No. 15 seed Louisville Spokes and Spires.


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