Michael Paye goes to shoot during the USA against Germany Preliminary Round Group B Wheelchair Basketball match at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 in Tokyo, Japan.
TOKYO — Coming out of the Rio Paralympics, the U.S. men’s basketball team was undefeated. In their eight matchups in Brazil, they never lost a game — ultimately winning gold.
So when they got placed in a tough group in the preliminary round at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, their winning streak was in jeopardy. Their first hurdle would be Germany, followed by Iran — who just missed the podium at the last world championships.
On Thursday morning at Ariake Arena, Germany showed up looking to prove something when they dropped the first basket after the buzzer.
Out of the 12 men’s wheelchair basketball teams in Tokyo, only three had won gold. The closest Germany had come was silver in Barcelona almost 30 years ago.
Would this be their year?
For the first two quarters, the U.S. was playing offense with the Germans taking a solid six-point lead after the end of both quarters. It appeared as if they might have a strong chance of taking down Team USA’s giants — eight of who were returning from Rio.
But it was in the third quarter when things started to turn around for the Americans, who eventually squeaked out an exciting 58-55 win.
“This is the first [competitive] game in almost two years,” said two-time Paralympian Brian Bell, who made several key baskets. “We knew there were going to be a lot of mistakes early on. The way we grinded out and adjusted as we went along show the leadership and veteran squad that we have.”
Both teams moved quickly through their lineups, with nine of the 12 players getting court-time by the end of the third.
Four-time Paralympian and two-time medalist Joshua Turek talked about the 12 guys — and the sacrifices they made this year to get to where they are today.
“The extra year was not easy for me, especially working a full-time job,” he said. “We know that we’ve all made sacrifices — whatever that may be. For me, it meant waking up at 5 am to go to the gym, and after work going back to lift and shoot. You do what you have to do.”
As a team, he said, they held one another accountable. “Because this is our Super Bowl!”
The last minutes of the game were a chess match of back and forth moves. With three and a half minutes to go, Bell cut the lead to one before putting them up by one 60 seconds later.
“What I think about is just making every shot count. That’s the biggest thing,” Bell said. “Even if I make or miss, I know the team’s going to pick me up. And also we’ve got to get back on defense and get the ball right back.”
As hard as Germany tried to retaliate, there just wasn’t enough time left on the clock.
So with 17 seconds to go, Turek sealed Germany’s fate when he made two final free throws.
“At this point in my career, I’ve shot that shot thousands and thousands of times,” he said. “I knew that they were going to call my number at the end of the game if it came down to free throws. I was mentally locked in. I knew what I had to do.”
And they did.
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo-2020-Paralympic-Games to view the medal table and results.