Chuck Aoki, right, scored 14 points in his Paralympic Games debut to lift Team USA to a 56-44 win over Great Britain.
LONDON – The U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Team began pool play today in one of the more popular sports of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, wheelchair rugby.
The U.S., a team that came into the tournament as the defending Paralympic champions and 2012 gold medal favorites, faced a tough test in sixth-ranked Great Britain, a team that entered the Games much improved and hungry for a win in front of their home crowd.
The match was tightly contested early on but thanks to solid play by some of the squad’s veteran players and a staggering 14 goals from first-time Paralympian Chuck Aoki (Minneapolis, Minn.), the Americans prevailed, 56-44.
The first half played out as expected with a lot of back and forth play as neither team was willing to give up an inch. Great Britain held onto a slim advantage, 13-11, at the conclusion of the quarter, which included six ties.
Great Britain’s lead was short lived however as the American squad came out aggressively in the second, capturing its first lead of the match at the 5:42 mark of the quarter after a steal by Aoki and subsequent goal by veteran player, Chance Sumner (Colorado Springs, Colo.).
That pushed the score to 18-17 in favor of the Americans and proved to be the turning point of the match as the U.S. did not give up the lead again.
“That play really turned the tide,” said Aoki. “It was fun to be out there in the second quarter.”
The U.S., which was fueled by Aoki’s six goals in the second quarter, controlled the pace, outscoring the British team 17-10 and taking a five goal advantage into the half, 28-23.
Despite holding onto the halftime lead, the American squad did not want to get too far ahead of itself.
Head coach James Gumbert knew the British would come out hungry after the break and therefore encouraged his players to take advantage of opportunities and to focus on working together as a team.
The Americans took his advice seriously as they were able to all but put the game away in the third quarter.
The U.S. kept Great Britain guessing throughout much of the third quarter, dominating play and eventually building its lead to nine to close out the quarter, 41-32. The U.S. was led by Sumner’s four goals in the quarter.
“The third quarter was good. We showed our depth and they got tired and we were able to run lines and put more points on the board,” said second-time U.S. Paralympian Sumner.
Despite Great Britain’s best attempts to close the gap in the final period, the U.S. squad always had an answer for the determined British squad, and proved to be the stronger team on the floor, scoring another 15 goals to eventually win the match easily, 56-44.
Overall, coach Gumbert was satisfied with the play of his team but knows that they still have a long road ahead.
“We have taken one more step in our journey, we beat an incredible opponent in a fantastic country with supreme fans and we have to use this as a learning experience for the next time we come out because we got caught flat-footed a few times by the noise,” said Gumbert. “…we have to go back and look at some of those things and clean them up.”
Today’s match against Great Britain may have been just a precursor to the tough road ahead for the American squad who will next face a tough team from Japan who beat the Americans the last time they faced off at the Canada Cup in June.
It’s for that reason that the coach Gumbert is placing a great deal of emphasis on their matchup with the Japanese.
“Japan beat us the last time we played them in Canada so we have been looking at the calendar and our matchup with them for a long time,” said Gumbert. “Japan knows they can beat us and they are going to be hungry.”
After Japan tomorrow, the Americans close out pool play versus France on September 7.
From there, the top four teams in pool play (two from each pool) will advance to the semifinals before the top two teams meet in the finals on September 9.