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In an empty arena, UB women's basketball is silenced by Kent State

CLEVELAND – The concourses at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse were almost empty, save for a handful of law enforcement personnel and security guards. Fewer than 300 spectators dotted the seats behind the benches of the University at Buffalo and Kent State women’s basketball teams.

Echoes filled Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, in the places where fans should have filled an otherwise empty building. The shouts of the Bulls yelling “defense!” in unison from their bench. The laughter of fans watching a clip from “Brooklyn 99” during a media timeout in the second half. The thud of a Kent State player who hit the floor.

A day after the Mid-American Conference announced that it was closing its men's and women's conference tournaments to the general public in order to minimize the spread of novel coronavirus, the Bulls played in a barren NBA facility Wednesday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

No. 6 UB rallied from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter to cut Kent State's lead to four in the final two minutes of regulation, but No. 3 Kent State made four of its final six free throws to hand UB a 72-66 loss in a MAC quarterfinal game.

Dyaisha Fair scored 36 points for the Bulls (19-12) and Asiah Dingle led Kent State (19-11) with 18 points. Kent State will play No. 7 Eastern Michigan, which upset No. 2 Ball State 64-63, at 1:30 p.m. Friday in the MAC semifinals.

“I don’t know if this team lost today,” UB coach Felisha Legette-Jack said. “We really pushed to another level of womanhood and I’m so grateful that we had this opportunity and this story to tell. Sometimes the best lessons to tell are through a loss.

And, Jack added, “we’re going to fight to the bitter end.”

But what happened on the court was secondary. The Bulls played in a near-empty arena on an unprecedented day in college basketball and in sports. The NCAA announced its tournament games will be closed to the general public. As of 11 p.m. Wednesday, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, the Big East, the Pac-12, the Big 12, the Atlantic 10 and the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference also announced Wednesday their conferences tournaments have been closed to the general public.

UB’s players tuned out much of what was going on, in preparation for a tournament that got turned upside down, less than 18 hours before the first game Wednesday.

“It’s easy for us to prepare,” UB guard Hanna Hall said. “It’s easy because the adversity we’ve been through the entire season, March is a blessing. We’ve put in the work now and now it’s just time to go and perform.

“We know that what coach Jack gives us is what’s best for the team. Regardless of the situation, we knew that we were going to have to fight whoever we played.”

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on Tuesday recommended to ban spectators from indoor sporting events in the state, in order to minimize the spread of novel coronavirus. Hours later, the MAC closed its basketball tournaments to the general public.

The Ohio Department of Health confirmed Wednesday that a fourth case of coronavirus was confirmed in the state. The first three confirmed cases were in Cuyahoga County; Cleveland, the host city of the MAC Tournament, is the Cuyahoga county seat and the second-largest city in Ohio. The fourth confirmed case in Ohio is a 53-year-old man in Stark County, about 65 miles southeast of Cleveland.

“At a baseline level, what it’s about, first and foremost, is the student-athletes,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher told the News. “I was and still am incredibly disappointed we had to make the decision we made to pretty much shut the doors and limit who could be in the building. But what mitigates that decision is the fact that we still are able to facilitate an opportunity for the student-athletes to compete. It starts with them.

“To be able to preserve that, that was really important. That’s kind of what’s bolstered my spirits, as we’ve worked through this.”

As Ohio and Western Michigan prepared to play in front of thousands of empty seats at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, DeWine announced that he planned to issue an order that will keep spectators from attending large-scale sporting events in Ohio, such as the NCAA Tournament. Cleveland and Dayton are hosting NCAA Tournament games next week.

Toledo coach Tricia Cullop said she saw the decision like the one the MAC made coming.

“The decision our commissioner had to make wasn’t an easy one, but I know he did it in the best interests of all of us,” Cullop said. “There’s people that have (coronavirus) and there’s not even a kit to test them. So they say, go home and be quarantined. I don’t want anyone here to get it. If he has to take some kind of precaution to protect all of us, even though it’s difficult, sometimes we have to make difficult decisions to save everyone.

“This a different world right now, and we’ve all got to make some concessions to keep everybody safe.”

The few spectators in the stands also understood the gravity of the decision. John and Teri Goldsberry traveled to Cleveland Wednesday morning from Urbana, Ohio, to watch their granddaughter, Hunter Rogan, play for Ohio.

“I agree with not having the general public here,” John Goldsberry said. “My health’s concerned. I’m an older person, so I’m in a high-risk group and it was nice to know they were taking steps to protect us. There’s still a lot of unknown about what this virus is.”

When it came to preparing her team for one of the most peculiar days in sports, Jack and her team focused on what they controlled: playing basketball.

“Right now, the adults are the governor, the president, the people in charge, the (MAC) commissioner,” Legette-Jack said. “Once they do their adulting, we have to surrender to the process. It’s not easy for the adults to make the decisions. They’re based on the safety of all, and we have to trust that.

“We’ve played AAU basketball championship games. There’s like seven or eight people left, all the moms and dads, and everybody’s been through a long day. It’s the same kind of fun. That’s how we talked about it, and I think we understood that."

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