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The Zags got knocked out, but this Spokane basketball team could win a national championship next week

Hoops fans are glum after Gonzaga’s early March Madness exit, but another Spokane basketball team still has a shot at a national championship.

Team St. Luke’s, a wheelchair basketball team that practices in Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake, is heading to Wichita, Kansas, next week to play in the Division III National Wheelchair Basketball Association Championships. The St. Luke’s squad is ranked ninth out of 16 teams heading to nationals.

“We need Hooptown to root for us,” said Mac Graff, a Team St. Luke’s player and former Gonzaga men’s basketball manager.

Team St. Luke’s – known as TSL among players – went 7-4 this year during a season truncated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Team coordinator Candice Belcourt, a recreation therapist supervisor at St. Luke’s, said this is the first team to go to nationals in a decade.

Wheelchair basketball isn’t dramatically different from regular basketball, TSL head coach Brian Lemons said. The rules are slightly different, but the tweaks are straightforward.

For instance, in regular basketball, players have to dribble once every two steps. In wheelchair basketball, players have to dribble after they’ve touched the rims of their wheels twice.

Lemons explained that controlling space is one of the keys to the sport. It’s hard for one player to drive past another to the hoop.

“It’s all about chair positioning,” Graff said.

Players jockey for position in the paint, ramming into each other. Wheelchair basketball trades in the squeak of sneakers for the metallic clashing of chairs.

“There’s a lot of banging up,” Lemons said. “You’ve got to have a lot of fast bursts.”

Graff said the violence of the sport surprised him when he started playing.

“My first thought was, ‘How is that not a foul?’ ” he said.

Team St. Luke’s often has to travel far for games. It plays teams in Seattle, Tacoma and Portland, to name a few. This year, the team traveled to Arizona for a tournament and had a chance to play against a couple of Division II teams.

Playing against that higher-caliber competition was the highlight of the year, Graff said. St. Luke’s didn’t knock off either D-II squad, but it hung with them.

Lemons said the team’s well prepared heading into nationals.

“They’re amazing shooters,” Lemons said of his players. “We don’t have a lot of weaknesses.”

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