This is the first in a three-part series about the abrupt end to Washington State’s basketball season, what the Cougars are doing to stay occupied during the COVID-19 pandemic and what’s next for Kyle Smith’s program coming off a 16-16 record in 2019-20.
Not until he woke up March 12 could Jeff Pollard fully grasp the breadth of the history he and his Washington State teammates had made the night before, beating Colorado 82-68 in the Pac-12 Tournament.
The Cougars had a partial understanding of all they’d done in Las Vegas, winning a game in the conference tournament for the first time since Barack Obama’s inaugural year, when Tony Bennett guided his 2008-09 team past an Oregon group led by Ernie Kent, the man who eventually tried to dig WSU’s basketball program out of a hole but buried the Cougars deeper, misfiring five times in Vegas after previous coach Ken Bone lost five straight.
Pumped with adrenaline, Pollard, who’d been there for three of the program’s 10 straight losses, ignored the pain shooting through a broken finger on his left hand and congratulated teammates as they filed off the court. There was a tall high-five with 7-foot center Volodymyr Markovetyy, a chest bump with Aljaz Kunc, a longer embrace with CJ Elleby.
“Getting the first win in the tournament since 2009 is a big deal,” Pollard said in a postgame press conference, a few minutes before 11 p.m.. “Obviously, first time since I’ve been here that we’ve gotten past the first round. It’s a big moment for all of us.
“But at the same time, tomorrow is another day.”
Not the day the Cougars expected, certainly, but one they’ll never forget.
WSU wouldn’t be back on the floor until 8:30 the next night, so head coach Kyle Smith scheduled a team breakfast for noon. It was imperative the Cougars be rested to play an upstart Arizona State team led by Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate Remy Martin. It was imperative that Pollard recharge before battling junior forward Romello White.
At 10:30 a.m., a phone alarm jolted Pollard out of bed. Usually, for Pollard, the second Thursday of March came with the realization the college basketball season had finished. Last season, it was the day the coach who’d recruited him, Kent, was fired.
This particular Thursday should have had Pollard brimming. The 23-year-old senior, who’d spent four years winning over fans and teammates with his sturdy defense and courage, was prepared to play through a broken finger the rest of the weekend, as long as WSU’s athletic trainers had enough tape to keep him going. The Cougars, who’d turned so many corners, felt like they’d rounded another one before beating Colorado in undisputedly their best game of the season.
College basketball teams, especially in win-or-go-home settings, routinely preach not looking past a single opponent, but the Cougars couldn’t help handicap their side of the bracket, assuming a win over the Sun Devils. WSU went just 6-12 in Pac-12 games, but 3-2 against the tournament’s top three seeded teams.
“Looking forward, we’re going to play an Arizona State team that we beat before,” Pollard said. “Then in the next one, if everything worked out, we would’ve played a UCLA team that we’ve beat before. Then, in the championship if everything worked out, we play an Oregon team we’ve beaten before.”
Once Pollard silenced his alarm, he scrolled through a stream of text messages in a group chat the Cougars use to communicate. One shared a screenshot with the crushing news: The Pac-12 Tournament, which was originally planned to move forward with only essential personnel and limited family members in attendance, was canceled.
Suddenly, this Thursday resembled many of the others for Pollard.
“I never really thought they would full-on cancel it,” he said. “But then when you saw everything else starting to happen with the NBA suspending their season. I think that was the big one.”
Elleby, sleeping in the other bed and 12 hours removed from his 30-point outburst against the Buffaloes, woke up with Pollard frantically repeating his name: “CJ, CJ, CJ.”
“He rolls over and goes, ‘What’s up, bro?’ ” Pollard said. “I go, ‘Bro, they canceled the tournament.’ And he immediately goes, ‘You’re kidding me,’ and grabs his phone and starts looking at stuff.”
More than an hour later, Pollard, Elleby and other players trickled into a conference room at the MGM Park for breakfast. Everyone understood the gravity of the situation – the fast-spreading coronavirus carried larger-than-sports ramifications – but that didn’t help some Cougars shake off the same disappointment and frustration that was setting in for college basketball players around the country.
“They were definitely a little down, just miffed,” Smith said. “I don’t think anyone quite knew what was going on, then we’re in a casino where there’s people touching everything. I started thinking, I just immediately went to, ‘Let’s lay low and get out of here.’ We’ve got to go through an airport and everything else. If there’s a place that seems like it would be passed along, it certainly would be Las Vegas.”
They weren’t preparing for the Sun Devils, but Smith and his coaching staff still had to devise a game plan for that night, arranging travel home for 14 players. It wasn’t as difficult for some, such as Brandton Chatfield, a freshman walk-on from Clarkston, but roadblocks arose for players such as Markovetskyy, a Ukraine native, and Kunc, from Slovenia. Because of restrictions on nonessential travel, it would be difficult to send international players home, but a more pressing concern may be bringing them back to the U.S.
“So, definitely a weird way to end because there wasn’t really one moment where it was like, ‘OK guys this is it,’ ” Pollard said. “Everybody just kind of slowly dispersed.”
Pollard, in some ways, still got the closure he needed. More than a week earlier, a doctor was diagnosing his broken finger, contemplating if it would sideline Pollard for the last stretch of his senior season. The same player who left the hospital earlier in the year after suffering what was thought to be a facial fracture and returned to the court to close out a game against USC could certainly withstand the soreness of a broken finger. The dagger would’ve been watching his team from the bench.
“That was tough because I’ve enjoyed my time here so much and I’ve absolutely loved every second of giving my all for this team,” Pollard said. “And to have kind of the last little home stretch be taken away from me, that was a hard pill for me to swallow, so I was glad I was able to get back out there and power through and finish on the floor.”
Smith, Pollard and various Twitter users could later conjure up a positive outlook on WSU’s season. In 2019-20, 5,768 Division I college basketball games were completed, according to Ken Pomeroy’s website. At 10:43 p.m. on Feb. 11, when the game ended at T-Mobile Arena, the Cougars made history – much more than they knew at the time.
A game in the Big East Tournament between St. John’s and Creighton the following day made it to halftime before being suspended, meaning WSU’s 82-68 victory over Colorado was the last of college basketball’s shortened season.
“You see it all over Twitter, people are putting 2020 national champs and putting the Coug logo underneath it and everything,” Pollard said. “I will definitely, definitely take that with me for the rest of my life, even if I have to put an asterisk next to it. I’m definitely hanging onto that.”
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