HORSHAM’S Jannik Blair is a wheelchair basketball world champion.
Blair and the Australian men’s team earned redemption for a silver-medal performance at the 2012 London Paralympics by defeating USA 63-57 in a gripping gold medal game at the world championships in South Korea on Monday.
It gave Australia back-to-back wheelchair basketball world championships and made the Rollers the first team to successfully defend a gold medal since the USA in 2002.
USA was the only side to defeat the Rollers during the tournament, setting up a clash of wheelchair basketball superpowers in the gold medal game.
The game lived up to its big billing in every way.
Australia struck first, with the hot shooting of Tristan Knowles giving the Rollers an early advantage.
Blair scored Australia’s second basket after an offensive rebound, before two three-pointers from Knowles late in the quarter gave the team a nine-point lead at the first break.
USA came back in the second and third quarters with a strong defensive effort.
The Americans forced Australia into multiple shot clock and eight-second violations, and started to move the ball inside more effectively.
The Rollers held a slender two-point lead at three-quarter-time, and it was impossible to pick a winner in the last quarter as the teams traded baskets.
When a long three pointer from American Matt Scott dropped in after bouncing on the rim three times, it appeared USA might seize the momentum and run over the Rollers.
Australia responded by tightening its defence, and some key shots from Knowles and captain Brad Ness late in the game steadied the ship.
Ness extended the lead to seven with clutch free throws with one minute left, but back-to-back USA baskets trimmed it to three with 38 seconds remaining.
Justin Eveson made three of four free throws after being intentionally fouled in the dying seconds to push the lead back out to six and deliver Australia the world championship.
Blair worked tirelessly throughout the game to free his team-mates, and connected on his only two shots of the game.
He played all but 47 seconds of the game, and was second on the team in minutes played throughout the tournament.
Blair said it was a relief to make up for the disappointment of finishing second in London, an experience he said he never wanted to repeat.
“There was never any doubt that we would win,” he said.
“It means so much to be able to do it for all the people who have supported me on the long, hard journey, especially after not being able to get the job done in London.”
Australian coach Ben Ettridge was full of praise for the Rollers.
“I’ve got the 12 best guys in the world and I’m so happy for them,” he said.
“We pride ourselves on our defence and that’s what won it.
“Every time we play defence it’s a war and today we gave them nothing.”