The Daemen men’s basketball team stopped to eat lunch in Binghamton on Thursday, and coach Mike MacDonald knew something extremely unusual was happening in college sports.
As the bus drove from Daemen College in Amherst along I-86 in the Southern Tier, MacDonald watched as major athletic conferences announced they had canceled their tournaments because of the coronavirus outbreak and wondered when, exactly, the bell was going to toll for the NCAA’s Division II national tournament.
The Wildcats were traveling from Amherst to southwest Connecticut to play in the tournament, but rather than worry about what might happen, MacDonald made a decision.
“We’ll have a longer meal,” he told his assistant coaches and players.
“Hopefully, by the time we’d left lunch, we’d have an answer to what was going to happen,” MacDonald said. “I had a feeling (NCAA officials) were going to cancel it at some point, but when I saw the NBA suspended its season Wednesday night, I was like, 'Uh-oh.' We got on the bus at 10 a.m. and as we’re driving, the ACC cancels, the SEC cancels, the American Athletic Conference cancels. And we’re just watching these things happen.”
By the time lunch was over and the bills were settled, the Wildcats still had no answer as to what was going to happen to their own tournament. So they went to a local mall, and there, they got the word that the NCAA canceled all men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, along with the championships in the other winter sports and the spring sports.
“I said, ‘This is not how your seniors think their career is going to end, in a mall in Binghamton,’” MacDonald said. “But there are people making heavy decisions. It is sad. But we know what’s happening across the country and that really, we’re a small part of this.”
The Daemen women’s basketball team was scheduled to open the NCAA Division II Tournament on Friday against Stonehill College in Garden City, the program's first NCAA appearance in the sport.
The Daemen men’s basketball team was scheduled to play Saturday at the University of Bridgeport. Instead, the season ended Thursday for both teams.
Daemen also announced Thursday night that it had indefinitely suspended all practices and competitions for its intercollegiate sports.
The Daemen women’s basketball team traveled Wednesday to Long Island and practiced Thursday morning, before the NCAA announced the cancellation.
“It’s been so up in the air for the last 24 hours,” Daemen coach Jenepher Banker said Thursday, as her team traveled by bus back to Amherst. “I got an email the night before we left (for Long Island) saying everything was going to say the same. Then, even before we left the next morning there was another email saying that things were going to stay the same because at that time, that’s what they thought. Then, as the news started to come down, then I’m like, ‘Ahhh.’”
The emails Banker received from tournament organizers said that only a certain number of people could attend tournaments. Then, she saw a notification that the Atlantic Coast Conference had canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Then, she saw Duke had effectively withdrawn from the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.
“You were kind of waiting for the next minute to see what was going to happen, while still trying to be focused on what you were going to accomplish if you were playing,” Banker said. “But there were so many things happening, and things continued to change. It was a wild 24 hours.”
Banker emphasized one point to her team.
“We talked about how we needed to stay focused, but stay present because these are such unusual circumstances in the world right now,” Banker said. “We talked about it over 24 hours, to recognize that this is really happening.”
She worried that as the team rode a bus back to Amherst, that roads would be empty. She knew that because of a pandemic and the response to it, she had to prepare she and her team for what she called “a new normal.”
But for a team directly impacted by the mass cancellations, she also had to communicate where the team and her players fit into the big picture.
“I think our student-athletes understand where we are,” Banker said. “We have a senior (Jordan Heinold) and a grad student (Ashli Jeune). Now their eligibility is done, but I talked to them and I said, ‘Honestly, it would have been irresponsible to play. The right decision was made. We have to keep you safe and healthy, and that’s what really matters.’
“They understood that. The NCAA tournament was a huge goal of theirs, but they understand the bigger picture.”
MacDonald acknowledged he harbored some hesitation about having his team travel during a global health crisis.
“I was sitting there as a parent and thinking, ‘Am I doing the right thing by bringing my kids to the NCAA Tournament, not knowing what could happen?’” MacDonald said.
He worried about his family, too. MacDonald’s wife, Maura, and two of his sons, Mark and Matt, were in Atlantic City, N.J., to watch their son Nick play for the Niagara men’s basketball team, which participated in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament. By midday Thursday, that tournament also was canceled.
"You want everyone to play in an NCAA Tournament," Mike MacDonald said. "But in the end, we have to think about the country and the safety of the players."
MacDonald said he can't compare this to anything else that’s happened in sports, or in history. He thought about it on the bus ride from Binghamton to Amherst.
“We can make it personal and say it’s our team, but a lot of teams are out there,” MacDonald said. “In the end, the importance is safety and trying to get this to pass. You can’t always script how your story ends. These guys will have a story to remember about their 2019-20 season.
“With a bizarre ending.”