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Army defeats Navy 56-55 in wheelchair basketball

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By SHANNON COLLINS

Jhoonar Barrera, medically retired from the Army, sank a free throw with 23.5 seconds remaining on the clock to seal a 56-55 Army victory over Navy in the wheelchair basketball final at the United Center in Chicago Friday during the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games.

Barrera, the team captian, said he didn’t realize until later that his foul shot would prove to be the game winner, and that he considers the gold medal victory to be a team effort.

“After I shot it, in my head, the game’s never over until you hear that buzzer, and you don’t really think about it,” he said. “You wait for that buzzer to go off, but until then you fight like you’re dying. It was a team effort, so I’m proud because my team believed in me, and I believed in them. I wanted them to step it up, and they came through for us in the last minutes to help me get to the line. It was great.”

Army basketball coach Charles Williams said it came down to communication and team effort.

“It was a pretty awesome game,” he said. “We’ve got some pretty strong players who came together as a team, and most of all, they listened. Their strength is we have guys who never quit and that strength of never quitting and always giving it all out on the floor is what made our team pull through today.

“My team—I can’t love them enough. It feels so great that we just believed in each other in the end, and that’s all that mattered.”

Navy coach Grant Moorehead said his team left it all out on the floor.

“They poured their hearts out there. They never gave up,” he said. “I love these guys. We had a great time and a great run; we just came up a point short.”

Brian Canich, medically retired from the Navy, said he’s proud of his team as well.

“We played our hearts out. We didn’t leave anything behind,” he said. “Mentally, we stayed together, we pushed them as hard as we could every second we could, and we made them as tired as we were. We pushed them and pushed them. It just came down to who could make the shots.”

Before the game started, Team Army performed a haka, a traditional war cry dance of the Maori people of New Zealand.

“We wanted to come out strong and aggressive and set the pace and tempo with the haka,” Barrera explained, adding that the dance helped to energize the team.

Both teams fought in the first half to keep the game close, as the score stayed within a four-point spread. Navy had a 12-6 lead, but Army closed the gap to 12-10 and then tied it up at 12. Army pulled ahead to lead 16-12, but the Navy fought back and tied the score again at 16.

Army took an 18-16 lead, but Navy pulled ahead to lead 21-18. Army led 30-28 with 40.2 seconds on the clock when Javier Rodriguez, medically retired from the Navy, scored a three-point shot, taking the score to 31-30 for the Navy at the half.

Comedian Jon Stewart, who participated in a celebrity wheelchair basketball exhibition match between the gold and bronze medal matches, said he was excited to watch the gold medal matchup.

“These are world-class athletes,” he said. “It’s not enough for them to survive, but to challenge themselves to thrive, and you see the results. It’s phenomenal. Some of these guys, in a short amount of time, go from not competing to joining the team, regaining their athletic spirit again, and you watch it light up and the spirit of their support for each other, that’s what’s most impressive.”

He joked that he didn’t realize that it’s almost like rugby out on the court because of the intensity of the players.

“I didn’t know that the contact was at the level of rugby, or just a free-for-all. It’s not going to end pretty for me,” he quipped.

The score stayed tight in the second half, and each team took timeouts if it looked like the other was gaining momentum. Navy had the lead at 44-43 with nine minutes left, but Army regained the lead and held the Navy off for the next few minutes.

With 2:56 on the clock, Army led 53-52, but with 1:26 remaining, the score was tied at 55. The crowd started screaming, “Go Navy” and “Go Army” as the clock ticked down. A foul with 23.5 seconds left led to Barrera’s clutch free throw, and his teammates hel Navy off the rest of the way for the win.

Before the gold-medal game, the Marine Corps team took the silver medal, topping Air Force 59-56 in overtime.

Members of both teams, as well as Stewart, said these athletes work together both on and off the court as they work through their recovery, and they encouraged others to try adaptive sports and to seek help if they need it.

“We’re just a great group of guys,” Canich said. “If you served in the Navy or Coast Guard and want to come out and play and have a great time, come out and try out. We’re always looking for more people to play wheelchair basketball. The Navy’s always hosting camps, and they’re open to everybody. Just call your Navy Safe Harbor representative and come out and join the team.”

Williams said he noticed the bonds among the Army team members as well.

“I noticed the camaraderie with the athletes from day one,” he said. “They hang out together. They go support each other at the venues, and they genuinely love their teammates. You can’t talk to one person here who doesn’t love being on this team.”

Canich said the Navy team is like a Family.

“All of us have some injury or illness we’ve struggled with,” he said. “A lot of us were in a dark place, and then once we came here, this just brings everybody together. Nobody out there is the first one to have been in that injury or illness. Somebody’s always been in your place, so if somebody needs help, we’re here to help them, push through, so they can move on and get to a better place in life.”

Although the Navy team members live in six different states, he added, they meet up, go on vacations together, and stay in touch.

Stewart said he hopes the fans who watched the game “will take away an admiration for the resilience and tenacity of the competition but also remember that this is the tip of the spear.”

“These are the guys who came in,” he said. “For every one, there’s a 100 behind them who are going through challenges and difficulties of their own. Keep the warriors in your mind, even the ones you don’t see. Understand that that’s what they’re going through.”

For those who may need help, Canich said, help is available.

“Never give up,” he said. “There’s somebody out there to help who has been in that situation. There are people out there who will be willing to help and do anything and basically lay down their life for you.”