When the men’s wheelchair basketball team suffered its only loss of the season Feb. 5, its season looked a bit cloudier than it once had.
From that point on, the Warhawks never looked back. Their journey culminated in a 66-54 triumph of the Illini last Saturday, giving the program its ninth national championship, and sixth in nine years.
The operative word for the ’Hawks (23-1) was perseverance.
They withstood a loss to the Illini in the national title game a year ago and they moved on from that loss last month. When the Illini closed the ’Hawks’ lead to 51-50 late in the second half, team members clamped down and went on a 15-4 run to end the game.
Head coach Jeremy Lade said if there was anything propelling the ’Hawks to the title, it was the chemistry the players displayed amongst one another.
“This is definitely the best team I’ve ever coached,” Lade said. “We had great team unity, great team energy coming off the bench, some great senior leadership, and some young guys who were pushing the older guys at practices.
“It didn’t matter who was leading on the scoreboard in terms of personal stats. What mattered to them was what team was leading on the scoreboard.”
Senior Nate Hinze, who was named the national player of the year, said the 89-80 loss the team suffered to the Illini last month allowed players to realize they could be beat.
“It made us realize we were beatable and there were plenty of things we needed to correct,” Hinze said. “It opened our eyes to the weaknesses in our defense.”
With those faults corrected, Hinze said the ’Hawks put forth their best defensive performance of the season against the Illini in the championship game.
Even though the Illini are the ’Hawks’ biggest rival, Hinze said he wasn’t overly excited about putting up a 6-1 record on them this season.
“I don’t think it really mattered who we played in the national championship this year, it was winning it that mattered,” Hinze said. “We were all really disappointed last year losing it. We all threw that behind us and started over.”
The team’s road to another national title began in the semifinals as Hinze piloted the ’Hawks in a 68-40 thrashing of the University of Alabama, dropping 30 points on the Crimson Tide.
Then it was senior and first-team All-American Chris Okon who took center stage for the ’Hawks against the Illini as he poured in 22 points to lead the ’Hawks to the title.
Hinze said the end to his season and the end to his career at UW-Whitewater couldn’t have been any better.
“Even losing one game in the season doesn’t matter,” Hinze said. “I wouldn’t change a thing. It was perfect.”