BOISE – Eastern Washington was dealt the first of two blows Thursday morning – 90 minutes before a quarterfinal tipoff against Sacramento State – when the Big Sky Conference Tournament was canceled amid the worldwide coronovirus pandemic.
The No. 1 seed and regular-season champion Eagles (23-8) soon found solace when given an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament, something they wanted to earn conventionally.
But there will be no Selection Sunday party at Reese Court, and no utterance of EWU by CBS broadcaster Greg Gumbel during a bracket reveal that annually captures the eyeballs of millions.
Hours after conference tournaments around the country were shelved Thursday, the NCAA announced the cancellation of March’s most-watched event.
Following the NBA’s and NHL’s suspensions of their respective seasons, and the two-week delay of Major League Baseball’s opening day, the NCAA elected to cancel its men’s and women’s national tournaments, as well as other winter and spring sports championships.
Instead of playing in the program’s third NCAA Tournament, EWU ends its season devoid of the postseason pageantry coveted by more than 350 Division I men’s basketball teams.
The Eagles were ready, even if fans weren’t allowed into several tournament sites, which was the NCAA’s initial plan to try and curb the spread of a virus that has infected more than 1,000 people across the country this week.
“The team is depressed, man,” third-year EWU coach Shantay Legans said. “Competing in the NCAA Tournament is a goal of everyone’s. The finality of it all is tough. Who knows, we could have been a Cinderella team. We could have done a lot of different things.”
EWU senior forward Mason Peatling, who was recently named the Big Sky Conference’s Most Valuable Player, wasn’t surprised by the news.
“Once I heard the conference tournament was canceled, I thought the NCAA Tournament would probably be canceled, too,” said Peatling, one of two seniors on EWU’s roster. “Right now, I’m just trying to reflect on a great year. We finished the season strong, won at outright title at home on Senior Night, (Legans) was coach of the year, and a few guys got All-Big Sky.”
The Big Sky, playing at CenturyLink Arena, was among the last conferences to cancel men’s and women’s tournaments.
Boise – as well as the entire state of Idaho – has had no confirmed coronavirus cases, but Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill wanted to take proactive measures.
“This decision was not made lightly, as we know how meaningful our basketball championships are to our student-athletes, coaches, alumni and fans,” 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.”
EWU wasn’t the only local team that didn’t get to finish the Big Sky Tournament.
The second-seeded Idaho women, who advanced to the tournament title game after beating Idaho State on Wednesday night, also didn’t get the opportunity to earn a berth to the NCAA Tournament on the court.
The Vandals (22-9) were set to face No. 1 seed Montana State in Friday’s title game. The Bobcats would have advanced to the NCAA Tournament by virtue of their regular-season championship.
Idaho coach Jon Newlee talked about the coronavirus pandemic following Idaho’s Wednesday night win.
“I think there’s some mass hysteria going on. … I don’t think there’s any reason to panic,” Newlee said. “I think people are pushing the panic button a little quick right now.”
The Idaho men (8-24) and EWU women (4-26), both No. 10 seeds, lost in the first round.
Spring sports suspended
The Big Sky announced Thursday night that all spring sports will be suspended until further notice.
Eastern Washington competes in track and field (men and women), tennis (men and women) and women’s golf.
Idaho men and women compete in track and field, tennis and golf.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.