RIO DE JANEIRO – The U.S. Men’s Wheelchair Basketball Team returned to the top of the podium at the Rio Paralympic Games claiming its eighth overall gold medal and the first since Seoul 1988 by defeating Spain in a defensive game, 68-52. It is also the first time since 1988 when both the U.S. men’s and women’s teams won gold medals, and the first time since 1996 when both teams medaled. Tonight’s gold-medal victory completes the sweep of gold medals for the United States in both men’s and women’s basketball at the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games.
Both teams started the first two quarters were played safe as both teams were exchanging baskets evenly with each other. At the 2:23 mark of the first, Aaron Gouge of Wake Forest, North Carolina, tied up the game at 8-8, and Brian Bell of Birmingham, Alabama closed the first with a second remaining for a 12-8 lead. Bell led the U.S. in scoring in the first with six points, and Gouge had four.
The second was a see-saw affair as each team would score in four-point stretches, with Spain tying the game early on and only able to inch as close as one point. With just over a minute remaining in the half, the U.S. called a timeout to regroup. With 43 seconds remaining, Jake Williams of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, provided a spark on offense with a three-pointer that hit nothing but net for a 26-20 lead. To close out the quarter, two-time Paralympian Trevon Jenifer of Huntington, Maryland, hit Bell under the basket where the first backwards layup did not fall, however he got his own rebound and spun for the basket, giving Team USA a 29-23 lead.
“A lot of it was Spain's defense. I thought they played us very well. We didn't do a good job of spacing the floor at first, so they didn't have to move as much. That made it difficult for us to get shots,” said U.S. Men’s Head Coach Ron Lykins of Columbia, Missouri. “At halftime, we really talked about spreading the floor, and we went with a different lineup. Once we spread the floor, we were able to move a little bit more, we had better ball movement, and that led to better shots."
At the half, Bell leads the team with nine points and five rebounds. Three-time Paralympian Josh Turek of Council Bluffs, Iowa, who came in during the second quarter, put back six points. And for the third consecutive game, co-captain and three-time Paralympian Steve Serio of Westbury, New York, has commanded the floor with four points, six rebounds, and six assists. The United States is shooting 67 percent at the half, to Spain’s 39 percent.
The third quarter belonged to Spain as they outscored the United States, 19-18, and was only the second team to do that during the Rio Games. The tempo of the game was controlled by Spain with moments where it appeared the U.S. men would get a momentum shift in their favor. Williams and Serio drained a couple long-range three-pointers to keep Team USA on top, 47-42.
It was not until the 7-minute mark of the fourth quarter when Team USA rolled onto victory off of two back-to-back steals by Jenifer, who hit Williams for a rolling layup and he was intentionally fouled on the next fast break attempt, essentially putting the game out of reach, 52-44. Two-time Paralympian Nate Hinze of Cedar Grove, Wisconsin, scored the last four points of the game from the foul line, and finished the night with seven points. The United States continued to pressure Spain and outscored Spain 21-10, and the gold medal.
"It was a team defensive effort. We went out there and knew that we needed to stop the ball, and we needed to get some points,” said Jenifer. “It was just the right time, right place kind of thing. The two steals are accredited to the excellent defense that was displayed by the other guys."
Williams led Team USA with 20 points and five assists, with Bell finishing the day with 15 points and seven rebounds. Serio finished with seven points, eight rebounds and dished out 10 assists.
“This is an incredible moment for our team, and to do it in this way, where it wasn’t just one guy – Jake had a great game today for sure – but it was a full team effort to get the win. I couldn’t think of a better group of guys that I’d want to share this experience with. I’m so incredibly happy right now,” said Serio. “I just found out that this was the first time that Team USA swept the men’s and women’s gold for the Olympics and Paralympics. So all four gold medals – that is quite the accomplishment, and I think it speaks to how popular and awesome our sport is in our country. Hopefully this medal for both our men's and women’s Paralympic teams increases the awareness for our sport and we can take the momentum from here and go on to Tokyo."
For Spain, Alejandro Zarzuela finished with 20 points and seven rebounds, and his twin brother Pablo had 16 points.
The United States is a perfect 4-0 against Spain at the Paralympic Games, and last playing them in 1988 Seoul, 1996 Atlanta, and 2012 London. Team USA is 78-15 in the Paralympic Games.
Team USA led 8 of the 12 stat categories: Field goals perentage at 53.2; points for at 614 (76.8/game); points against at 349 allowed points (43.6); assists with 226 (28.3); least called fouls at 79 (9.9/game); least turnovers at 63 (7.9/game); steals with 76 (9.5/game); and 145 fast break points.
Lykins as the head coach of four U.S. Teams has earned a total of four medals over his coaching career – 1992 women’s silver; 2004 women’s gold; 2008 women’s gold; and 2016 men’s gold. Joining Lykins on the sidelines will be assistant coaches Robb Taylor of Auburn, Alabama, and John Sikora of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Scott Meyer of Columbia, Missouri, will serve as the Team Leader, with Mary Vacala of Savannah, Georgia, filling the athletic trainer position. Also assisting in preparations are strength coach Michael Cohen of Savannah, Georgia, and team psychologist Dr. Roberta Kraus of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The U.S. men’s team finished with a bronze medal at the London 2012 Paralympics and look to improve in Rio de Janeiro. The men’s team finished seventh in 2004 and fourth in 2008, following bronze-medal performances in 2000 and 1996.