BOISE, Idaho — Of the 11 teams in the Big Sky Conference, Montana State is the only school with both its men’s and women’s still competing this week here at CenturyLink Arena.
That is, until league officials moved to cancel the rest of Big Sky postseason basketball on Thursday before the opening of the quarterfinal round of the men’s tournament. The cancellation stems from the growing national and international hysteria attached to the potential spread of COVID-19, a hybrid of the virus commonly known as corona virus.
“We are disappointed the tournament has to end this way but also understanding of the precautions we need to take for the student athletes, for the coaches, for the athletic department staffs with what is going on around the country,” Montana State athletic director Leon Costello said while addressing a group of eight media members. “Very disappointed from an athletic perspective but our job as administrators is to protect our student athletes. Their health is paramount and this is a step and precaution we had to take.”
The Montana State women are perhaps the most impacted team in the tournament based on the historic performance of the Bobcats to this point. The women’s tournament opened on Monday. MSU survived upset bids from Northern Colorado Tuesday and Northern Arizona Wednesday to move into Friday’s championship game against second-seeded Idaho.
One more win would’ve given Montana State a school record 27 victories and a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in school history.
Because MSU won the regular-season Big Sky championship with a league-record 19 conference victories in 20 BSC games, the Bobcats entered this week’s tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. Because MSU won both of its tournament games, the NCAA rules state that they would receive the league’s auto-bid into the NCAA Tournament despite the BSC tournament cancellation.
“This decision was not made lightly, as we know how meaningful our basketball championships is to our student-athletes, coaches, alumni, and fans,” Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill said. “After consulting with medical experts, local authorities, and the leadership of our institutions, we feel that this decision is prudent given the health and well-being of all involved.
“We would be remiss not to acknowledge all of our local partners who helped us increase the interest in and attendance at our tournament this year, and we look forward to welcoming those fans back when we return to Boise in March 2021.”
Costello said Montana State had not made whether the Bobcat women would participate in the Big Dance. That was as of 1 p.m. MST on Thursday. Costello said he would “be shocked if the tournament goes on.”
Less than two hours later, the NCAA cancelled the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
Montana State’s five seniors — Big Sky MVP Fallyn Freije, second-team all-league guard Oliana Squires, the center platoon of Blaire Braxton and Madeline Smith and starting guard Martha Kuderer — will not get a chance to play for the Bobcats again. The group helped MSU to 26 victories, tying a 33-year-old school record. Montana State won 17 games in a row to reach the Big Sky Tournament championship game.
One Big Sky official said if MSU had won the Big Sky championship game, the league champion would have an inside track on a seed as high as No. 10 or No. 11 in the Big Dance. Instead, Tricia Binford’s best team will be left wondering what might have been.
“The first thought is that I’m bummed for all the kids (in the tournament), they’ve prepared for this moment the entire season and it’s taken away,” Binford, MSU’s 15th-year head coach, said. “Then you think about our seniors, that they don’t have this opportunity. For us specifically, we’ve been on a run to a record-breaking season and to have it stop like this is quite unusual and unprecedented. But that said, these decisions are above us and it’s for the safety of everybody. We’ll wait and see what happens for next week.
“As far as the Big Sky protocol, I was told that the top seed would be the team representing (the league in NCAA Championship competition). I think our kids have earned that. They proved themselves night in and night out, so I’m really proud of them. The message I’ve communicated to our kids is that they’ve accomplished all the goals they set out to achieve. They’ve done that. Not to have the opportunity on the court is disappointing, and the same with Idaho. Both teams are disappointed not to play each other, it would have been a fun game, but it’s hard to have words right now because it’s such a remarkable situation.
“This is a global situation and protecting the public and getting this under control is something we all understand. But this really hits us emotionally because these ladies have put a lot of sweat on the hardwood every single day for joy that they won’t get to experience. Last night we finished our huddle saying that if this is the end of our season we got to finish on a win, and not many teams get to do that. I told them I don’t want them to think of this feeling, I want them to remember the feeling in the locker after that victory (over NAU in the semifinals). I want them to remember the celebration after that victory, how they competed and battled and found ways all season. We had so many celebrations this year, so many remarkable memories. It’s been a heck of a ride with special kids, and that’s what I want them thinking about.”
Idaho handed Montana State its only loss of the conference season. The Vandals are 15-3 in postseason tournaments since 2013 under head coach Jon Newlee. Instead, UI’s season ends with a 22-9 record.
Eight teams on the men’s side of the Big Sky tournament were set to engage in the first steps of March Madness, including top-seeded Eastern Washington. The Eagles were scheduled to open the tournament’s quarterfinals against No. 9 Sacramento State, a team that posted a 62-54 victory over No. 8 Weber State in the opening game on Wednesday.
EWU went from winning the program’s first outright Big Sky title since 2004 on Saturday to scouting the Hornets courtside on Wednesday to earning its third bid to the NCAA Tournament in school history as the top remaining seed after the BSC Tournament cancellation. And then, in less than two hours, the Eagles learned their season is over.
“This is an unprecedented situation and one where our first priority must undoubtedly be the health of our student-athletes and community at large,” EWU head coach Shantay Legans, the Big Sky Coach of the Year, said in a prepared statement. “I fully support the Big Sky’s decision to cancel the tournament, and I will continue to defer to the NCAA’s leadership and our national experts in determining the proper course of action going forward.”
The rest of Thursday’s action featured No. 4 Portland State and No. 5 Montana State playing in the second quarterfinal of the day. Instead, MSU finishes with its first winning season in 10 years but with no opportunity for seniors Harald Frey or Ladan Ricketts to play in their final conference tournaments.
“Obviously we don’t know about the virus. Our job as leaders and educators is to make sure we protect the student-athletes first,” MSU first-year head coach Danny Sprinkle said in a press release. “It hurts for all the seniors – not just Harald Frey and Ladan Ricketts on our team, but all the seniors in the conference – and it’s sad.
“This is what they work for all year, these conference tournaments and to play in March Madness. For them not to get this opportunity is a harsh reality, and there’s no way to prepare, no book to tell us how to tell those seniors.
Ricketts, a native of Livingston who grew up dreaming of playing for the Bobcats, and Frey, a four-time All-Big Sky selection who came to MSU from Oslo, Norway ony to become the second player in the history of the Big Sky Conference to score 1,800 points and dish out 500 assists, will never suit up for the Bobcats again.
“Looking at Harald and Ladan, it breaks your heart for them, and every coach is going through the same thing. Coach Binford’s going through the same thing, and their team was going to play for a championship (Friday), and they have a bunch of seniors. It’s hard, and the reality is that we don’t know the extent of this virus. I think the Big Sky did the right thing, and you see everybody in the country doing the same thing.”
The second session Thursday included No. 2 Northern Colorado taking on No. 7 Southern Utah in a rematch of a game that SUU won by 19 points a year earlier to abruptly end the career of UNC star Jordan Davis.
The last game of the day was supposed to feature Montana taking its first step as the two-time defending tournament champions. The Grizzlies were set to take on Idaho State, the second team in tournament history to win a game as the bottom seed.
Now schools in Montana and around the Big Sky will be faced with the difficult decision to continue with spring sports. Conferences around the country announced the cancellation of all spring sports effective immediately on Thursday afternoon.
“As everything has transpired, you realized it was going to hit us and would have to do something,” Costello said. “I am just shocked of the immediacy of all of it and how quick it did happen.”
“I don’t know if it’s hit us yet. It feels like it’s a dream right now. It doesn’t feel real.”