This is how profoundly COVID-19 has altered the landscape of college basketball.
A few months ago, the idea of spending Thanksgiving weekend in South Dakota seemed like a bad joke.
Now it’s the biggest weekend on the Gonzaga women’s schedule, even with the sudden cancellation of Saturday’s opener against Oklahoma.
The Bad Boy Mowers Classic in Sioux Falls represents the end of a tunnel that’s been dark since March, the place where the 2020-21 season finally got underway and where the year finally assumed some sense of normalcy.
With no more unpleasant surprises in a year that has dished out so many.
The latest and perhaps cruelest came on Monday, when tournament organizers announced that the three-day event would be conducted in a bubble, with no fans or even families allowed in the Sanford Hexagon arena; and on Thanksgiving Day, no less.
The turkey wasn’t even in the oven when Oklahoma announced Thursday morning that it would not be making the trip to Sioux Falls because it “could not meet the player availability threshold for the tournament due to COVID-19 tracing.”
After failing to find a replacement team, tournament organizers announced Thursday night that the event would go on with three teams. According to the new schedule, top-ranked South Carolina will play South Dakota on Saturday, then face No. 21 Gonzaga on Sunday.
The Zags will play South Dakota on Monday. All three games will begin at noon PST.
Gonzaga officials could offer no comment Thursday night, according to sports information director Jenna Larson. The team and coaches were expected to fly to South Dakota on Friday.
Disappointment has come in waves since March, when the Zags lost to Portland in the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinals in Las Vegas.
With a program-best 28-3 record, they expected to host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games.
“Instead, they told us we were going home,” said LeeAnne Wirth, who flew back to Arizona with twin sister Jenn and put together a home gym.
“But that was all summer,” Wirth said. “Thank goodness Jenn and I have each other … to train with your best friend and find motivation.”
The team’s other twins, Kayleigh and Kaylynne Truong, found the same experience back in Houston, where even the parks were closed.
With younger brother Jonathan, they got reacquainted with the hoop in their backyard.
“I’m lucky enough to have Lynne to make sure I’m motivated,” Kayleigh Truong said. “And when neither of us felt like working out, our brother was there for us.”
Meanwhile, Jill Townsend was back in her hometown of Okanogan, Washington. All three of the town’s gyms were closed, so Townsend fashioned her own equipment out of bottles and anything else on the family ranch.
Two and a half hours from Spokane, a trip the Townsend family had been making since Townsend signed with the Zags four years ago.
“They haven’t missed a home game since then,” said Townsend, her voice trailing off.
“This is for sure killing them,” she said. “Especially with this being my senior year.”
Arriving back in the summer, the players faced an ever-receding nonconference schedule that wasn’t finalized until last week.
It includes just one home game – Dec. 13 against Montana – and tournaments in South Dakota and Las Vegas, which represents the best chance for family to see their loved ones play.
After that comes the West Coast Conference portion of the schedule, with some tough games but no guarantee of fans being able to see them play.
“We really miss our fans,” head coach Lisa Fortier said after FanFest on Nov. 10.
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