The road to the NCAA Tournament was littered with crushed hearts this year, after the coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation.
The loss of what could have played out, as well as the shocking, immediate end to the season has weighed heavily on players and coaches. But perhaps none more than some of the teams that had already won a Tournament berth – a few, for the first time in program history.
These four conference tournament champions are reconciling not being able to showcase the fruits of their hard labor this season.
The Portland Pilots’ March joy was extremely short-lived.
They pulled off a shocking upset to clinch their NCAA Tournament spot in taking down the West Coast Conference’s top seed, No. 11 Gonzaga, in the tourney final. Mid-afternoon that Tuesday, March 10, the team’s Twitter feed erupted: “The Pilots are dancing!!! The Pilots are dancing!!! They’re the 2020 WCC Champions!!!”
The athletes did indeed dance, as well as make confetti angels on the floor, to celebrate the first Tournament berth in program history.
But by mid-morning the next day, the NCAA announced that the Tournament would be played without fans in the stands, to stem the spread of the virus. The next morning, not even 48 hours after Portland punched its ticket, first-year coach Michael Meek and athletics director Scott Leykam learned together that there would be no Tournament – no debut for the Pilots.
The team was calm when they met, which belied their heartbreak.
“We were so excited to win our tournament,” Meek said. “We had graduated 60 percent of our scorers from the previous year and were picked to finish last in the conference. The three teams we hadn’t beaten in league were the ones we played in the WCC Tournament. We were feeling great about what we had accomplished.”
Portland had overcome plenty of adversity throughout the year, as starting guard Liana Kaitu’u tore her ACL in their sixth game, and second-leading scorer Haylee Andrews missed five games with a fractured rib. Even so, they remained competitive and kept most of their losses close.
“As the season went along, I could see momentum building,” said Meek, who took George Fox to three Division III NCAA Tournaments and two Championship games in his nine years there. “The players never got too high or too low.”
They beat BYU handily on the road, and Meek said when the team kept things competitive at Gonzaga, he knew they could surpass expectations.
The Pilots had a meeting after the tourney shutdown was announced. Their lone senior, Kate Andersen, took the initiative to speak to the team, which Meek said he “really appreciated.” And then just as quickly, all had to go their separate ways, as schools around the country moved classes online so students could self-quarantine at home.
Meek said the abrupt end was extremely challenging.
“The hardest part is how little closure we had on our season,” he said. “We’ve been keeping in contact, and (staff) has been working on helping players celebrate their accomplishment.”
Ultimately, however, athletes understand the bigger picture.
“Our group has a really good perspective that this situation is so much bigger than basketball,” Meek said.
More than 1,800 miles away, the IUPUI Jaguars found similarly fleeting happiness in the Horizon League Tournament.
They entered as the top seed and prevailed over No. 2 Green Bay on March 10, to earn the first NCAA Tournament berth in program history. The Jaguars had come close in both the Summit and Horizon leagues, and had been to the WNIT six of the last seven years. This season, however, they won 13 in a row after dropping their opener. They exceeded preseason league predictions of third place, won a record 15 conference games and grabbed a share of the title with four games to go.
“We’d been second in both leagues and had been consistent, but had never been able to get over the hump,” ten-year coach Austin Parkinson said. “This season, we were able to do it.”
Parkinson was being interviewed on the radio when he got texts from several players telling him the Tournament had been canceled. The team’s euphoria quickly turned to despair.
“They were heartbroken,” he said. “They had sone such a good job keeping a one-game-at-a-time mentality, but we never got a chance to celebrate and let them bask in their glory.”
“I know they were really looking forward to that Monday Selection Show, and that was a bummer just as much as anything else – seeing your name up there. They…..felt like we had a chance to show we were a sweet 16-caliber team, (because) we’re 6-2 and 6-3 inside.”
Parkinson said he felt especially badly for his lone senior, Molly Hoopingarner, who had been part of a team as a freshman that was one bucket away, in regulation play, from a Tournament berth.
The team met Friday, and by the time they wrapped up, it seemed like some healing had taken place.
“We went around the room so everyone could talk about what they were thinking when the horn went off and we had clinched,” Parkinson said. “It turned into a celebration. They talked about who they heard from, what their own celebration was like, what it was like to have the governor of Indiana come into the locker room before the championship game and wish us luck.”
Players and coaches have had online meetings since departing campus, which have included the team nutritionist and strength and conditioning coach to keep them on track. And though there is sorrow, Parkinson and the team are filled with gratitude.
“It was a neat thing for us, because we did this for the first time in school history,” he said. “I’m really grateful we got to play our conference tournament. It would have been really tough not to play it, and my heart goes out to those who didn’t get to do that.”
The season’s end for the Southern Conference Tournament champion Samford Bulldogs was especially cruel, because it happened remotely. As a result, it doesn’t quite yet seem real.
Coach Carley Kuhns said she and her team were excited about sealing the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in eight years that Sunday, March 8, with a win over UNC Greensboro.
“We were on the highest of highs, and there was no indication that (the coronavirus outbreak) would affect us at all,” Kuhns said. “So I sent them home for spring break for four days, and we planned to come back on Friday for practice.”
The prohibition of fans three days later was the first indication for Kuhns, in her first year at Samford, that trouble lied ahead. Yet, she and her players rallied family members to come and support.
“We were so excited about the opportunity,” she said.
But as the day wore on, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic, and the NBA announced it was suspending its season after a player tested positive for the virus. Kuhns knew that the NCAA Tournament was a goner.
“We didn’t (have a team meeting), and that’s what stunk the most,” Kuhns said. “We found out on social media. One player, Natalie (Armstrong), facetimed me earlier in the day, and…..I said ‘no way that this is true, it’s just a rumor.’ But sure enough, it was out on social media before I had a chance to tell them.”
Schools across the country sent athletes home and moved classes online. The Bulldogs were already home, where they have remained. They haven’t seen one another in person for almost one month.
“Most teams got moments to be sad together, but we were away and we’re still away,” Kuhns said. “It’s weird because it feels like we’re still (on break). We haven’t had a chance to have that final goodbye.”
The team has had Zoom meetings and are checking in with one another regularly, but that’s not doing much to aid their healing process.
“We had a really, really close team, so they’re struggling with not being together and having a roommate to hang out with,” Kuhns said. “We also have eight seniors, so that’s half of our team.”
Those soon-to-be-graduates are also stressed out about the burgeoning unemployment rate, due to the pandemic.
“They’re all panicking because people are getting fired right now, and they’re asking me if they’ll have the opportunity to find jobs,” Kuhns said.
Samford had been picked to finish seventh in the conference, and were excited to have exceeded expectations, which is why losing their postseason hurts so much.
“For it to be a remarkable turnaround, to have had such a special year, to have surprised people and to have won the regular season, I feel for them because of what they accomplished,” Kuhns said.
She hopes conditions improve enough by June to bring the team together one more time.
“I told them, we’re doing a party when this virus is over,” Kuhns said. “At my house, we’re going to celebrate.”
The NCAA Tournament isn’t new to the Dayton Flyers. Going into this season, coach Shauna Green had guided the team to the Dance two out of her three years there. Beating VCU to take the Atlantic-10 Tournament title almost four weeks ago was tourney ticket No. 3.
What was most painful for Green about the sudden shutdown of play is that she had seven seniors – her first graduating class as a Division I coach. She knew they were about to do big things in the Tournament.
“I was really looking forward to it,” Green said. “We had that confidence about us. We were playing at a high level, and playing so well together. We’ll never know.”
“I’m disappointed for our senior group. They were great leaders. That group was freshmen, and they came in winning the regular season and conference tournament, and they had just duplicated that this year.”
Green kept an eye on news about coronavirus. To begin the A-10 Tournament, players and coaches were told not to shake hands. When the NBA stopped play, she knew the NCAA Tournament was next.
“Everything happened so quickly,” Green said. “We practiced at 11 (Thursday) and it was a normal practice. But in the back of my mind I thought, ‘you know what, this may be our last practice.’ But I didn’t say that to our team.”
“We had an unbelievable practice, and I told them afterward how proud I was of them. I had sat back at one point and watched them, appreciating how great they had become.”
Green had just picked up her five-year-old son when she got the call. She turned around and went back to school, and called a team meeting. It was a tearful one for all.
“As soon as I saw my kids – I’m not an emotional person – but once I saw them I started to cry,” Green said. “You work so hard and you want it so bad for your kids.”
The seniors stepped up “organically,” according to Green, and tearfully shared experiences of their careers, one by one.
“It was really tough,” Green said.
This week the team began Zoom meetings, which will include the group’s academic advisor, their strength coach and their sports psychologist.
“They need that right now,” Green said. “They need an opportunity to talk and to see each other and have those interactions.”
The past three weeks has allowed Green to get past some of her grief and gain perspective.
“I’m just grateful for the journey, which is what we preach to our players anyway, that it’s not about the final destination,” she said.
Like Parkinson, Green also celebrates what did happen.
“I can sleep a little better knowing that the last time we were on the floor and competed, we won a championship, and no one can take that from us,” she said. “I can’t imagine working so hard and not even getting a chance to compete in our tournament.”