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04/09/2015
Steve Goldberg's Wheel World
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What team will gladly cheer "We are number 5!"

Charlotte (Steve Goldberg's Wheel World) - In what world is a game to determine fifth place more important than a gold medal final?

That world this week would be Euro 2015, the IWBF Europe Wheelchair Basketball Championship tournament that winds up this Sunday in Worcestershire, England.

When I was living in Manhattan, the New York Lottery persistently promoted the purchase of tickets with the phrase, "You have to be in it to win it!"

Simple but true. And it captures the urgency of this tournament and the pressure that comes with it.

As with the Parapan American Games in Toronto a few weeks back, the primary objective of every team in Worcester - hold the shire - was to confirm a spot in next year’s Paralympic Games. Everything else comes after that.

You can watch the drama unfold live through the excellent online streaming and live scoring stats app being presented by IWBF Europe, British Wheelchair Basketball and the Worcester organizers via IWBF Europe's tournament page that also has links to archive video, stats, results, team info and so much else or the local event site which also has written game reports on all games to date.

Based on performance in the IWBF World Championships, Europe has the most earned spots for the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games which has made the odds of qualifying the best of any zone with 4 of 7 women's teams (57 percent) and 5 of 12 men's squads (42 percent) getting the nod. (By comparison, the next best zones for qualification would be the Americas and Asia-Oceania where 25 percent of the men's teams will qualify and 37.5 and 33 percent of the women’s respectively will move on).

The four women's teams that will start studying Portuguese phrase books are already known as making the semi-finals had that reward. The Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain and France all go into the medal rounds without the pressure of Rio hanging over them. Given the large gap that remains pervasive across the globe in the women's game between contenders and those who would like to be, the first three - the Dutch were 6-0 with Germany and GB both 5-1 - were virtually givens though that wouldn't have lessened the angst. France by the grace of their third game win over Spain took the last spot.

Turkey's Ozgur Gurbulak takes the ball through the Polish defense at the Euro 2015 wheelchair basketball tournament. Gurbulak is averaging a triple double through the first round and quarter-finals. Photo courtesy of IWBF Europe Facebook page.

Not as simple for the men though as two of the quarter-finalists will be the odd men out at the end of Friday's games and another by Saturday's end. All of which makes the 5/6 classification final, not to mention the games to get there, more important than the gold medal game.

Friday's semifinalists who by that virtue are already confirmed for Rio are Germany, Turkey, the Netherlands and hosts Great Britain, can now focus on contending for a medal.

After his team struggled to finally separate itself from a feisty Israel, Germany's head coach Nicolai Zeltinger looked back and then forward: "It's a big relief to know we have secured a place in Rio next year. We had a lot of pressure going into the game even though we didn't need to because we have played a great tournament so far.

"Now we are through and qualified for Rio we can come back to the basketball and play the way we would like to, fast aggressive defense. We are looking for more out of this tournament now."

Those contending for a spot in the 5/6 game that offers no medallion but a Wheels of Fortune grand prize of a "Tell them what they've won Vanna! Why it's an all-expense paid trip to Brazil!" are, in terms of demonstrated strength, as well as their matchups are Spain versus Poland, and Italy versus Israel. Switzerland and the Czech Republic will duke it out for 11th place.

I would expect to see Spain going against Italy in that 5/6 game and probably winning it but another ate game meltdown might have them watching the Paralympics on TV next year. In the last game of the first round, Spain had an up-to-that-point invincible Germany on the ropes, starting out 7-0, leading by as much as 12 and up by 5 midway through the fourth quarter.

And that's when it happened. A flagrant foul by Pablo Zarzuela, purposefully tumbling Dirk Passiwan at midcourt as Thomas Bohme was breaking to the basket, led to two free throws by Passiwan and a score plus one underneath by Aliaksandr Holouski tied the game at 56 with 5:14 to play.

After a Spain miss, Passiwan put Germany ahead 58-56 and a 10-2 run closed it out to keep Germany undefeated through the round.

Then against an undefeated Turkey in the quarterfinal, Spain were down by as many as 11 points… until fighting back to draw within two at 50-48 on 5 straight points by Asier Garcia Pereiro with 3:21 to play.

And then it happened. A hard unsportsmanlike foul by Garcia on Ozgur Gurbulak gave Turkey 2 free throws and the ball. The lead was back to 6 and Spain was on the outside looking in.

So, will it be German and Turkish men both undefeated going for their first Euro gold on Sunday or will the Brits take their third title in a row? Maybe the Dutch will clog those aspirations? Can the German women take back the European crown from the Netherlands or was the pool play drubbing handed to them by Agent Orange (58-37) the real deal?

And most importantly, who of the men will win the best 5th place ever?

Steve Goldberg

FIBA

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Steve Goldberg

Steve Goldberg

Eight years after first getting a glimpse of wheelchair basketball at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul when covering the Olympics for UPI, Steve Goldberg got the chance to really understand the game as Chief Press Officer for the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta. He's been a follower of the sport ever since. Over the years, the North Carolina-born and bred Tar Heel fan - but University of Georgia grad - has written on business, the economy, sports, and people for media including Time, USA Today, New York magazine, Reuters, Universal Sports, TNT, ESPN, New York Daily News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Olympian. Steve Goldberg's Wheel World will look at the past, present and future of wheelchair basketball.