While many of the Auburn faithful were keeping up with the men’s basketball team at the Final Four, another team from Auburn was making history of its own.
The Auburn wheelchair basketball team took home the national championship trophy for the National Wheelchair Basketball Association 2019 Toyota National Adult Division III Wheelchair Basketball Tournament on April 7.
The Tigers are a community team, not to be confused with Auburn University’s wheelchair basketball team, which competes in the NWBA’s college division.
The six-seeded Tigers ground through the 16-team bracket, grabbing a first-round win against the Turnstone Bandits from Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The team also had two overtime victories against the Fayetteville Flyers from North Carolina and the Columbus Wheelchair Basketball Club from Ohio before reaching the championship match- up against the Ability 360 Suns from Phoenix, Arizona.
“I told some of my teammates during this tournament, ‘I don’t know that we’re the best team in the D3 division, but I do think that we’re the hardest to beat because we just don’t quit,’” said head coach and player Woody Thornton.
That never-quit attitude would prove to be the difference-maker in the championship game, as well.
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After one half of play in historic Broadway Armory Park in Chicago, the Tigers found themselves down by 12 points. They did not quit, and a second-half rally tied the score at 54 with just seconds to play.
With seven seconds left and the championship on the line, tournament MVP Robert Foley sunk the winning three, giving Foley 33 points in the game and the Tigers their first national championship.
“It’s really unreal,” Thornton said. “Getting invited to the tournament and then just going in there and being able to win the whole thing — it’s mind boggling to me.”
Thornton has been a part of wheelchair basketball in Auburn since it began in 2010 and has loved every minute of it.
He said there weren’t any adaptive sports at Auburn University when he attended in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“The fellowship that you make with the other players is unique, not just on your own team, but when you go to a tournament,” Thornton said. “You know, you get a lot of people talking to each other with the disabilities. I think people relate to each other well.”
The wheelchair basketball program has grown over the years. In 2017, a strictly collegiate team was created just for students. The Division III team was added for students and adults not eligible or experienced enough for collegiate play.
The 2019 Division III and national championship team consists of players from throughout Alabama and even some Florida residents.
The team is sponsored by Thornton’s organization, the Christian Amputee Support Team.
The Tigers play their home games in the Beard-Eaves Coliseum and compete in regular season tournaments across the Southeast.
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