From chasing a championship to searching for closure: Men’s basketball’s final week, in the Bears’ own words, Part 1

| Senior Sports Editor

The Washington University men’s basketball team had finished the regular season tied with Emory University atop the University Athletic Association and had received an at-large bid to the Division III NCAA tournament. Wash. U. beat Bethany Lutheran College in the first round, 102-68, before a victory over No. 7 Nebraska Wesleyan University in the Round of 32, 79-58. The Bears were scheduled to play No. 11 North Central College on Friday in the Sweet 16. By Thursday, after days of building anticipation and intense practices, the coronavirus had ripped the season from the Bears’ grasp, just as it had from thousands of other student athletes across the country. Here, in their own words, is a retelling of the Bears’ last days together.

After beating Nebraska Wesleyan on Saturday, March 7, the Bears had high hopes for the week to come. The win had propelled the Red and Green past the tournament’s opening weekend for the first time since 2009, when the Bears won the national championship.

Curran Neenan | Student Life

Members of the men’s basketball team celebrate during a Nov. 23 win over Coe College. The Bears, who finished the regular season 20-5, started off strong in the NCAA tournament.

Head coach Pat Juckem: We hadn’t peaked. We had kind of solidified a rotation the last four weeks or so and those guys were really playing well together. I think coming out of that weekend, we just felt very confident and excited. Every time you advance in the tournament, it just kind of builds, it gets better in anticipation of the next round.

Junior guard Jack Nolan: It was exhilarating. Winning in March, winning in the NCAA tournament is one of the most special things in all of sports, something you work for your entire life. To finally accomplish that and get wins in the tournament is just such an exhilarating feeling. And we were just riding that wave, we were riding that high.

Sophomore forward Justin Hardy: We had played some of the best basketball we had played all season, beating a top-10 Nebraska Wesleyan team by more than 20 points. We couldn’t have been happier, basketball-wise, to be in that position.

Senior center Hank Hunter: There was no school and no classes weighing on anybody, so everyone was living in the present, in the moment. We were all kind of realizing how special this group of guys was and how we could have a run going forward.

Nolan: After that win against Nebraska Wesleyan, that vision became pretty clear. We were like ‘We’re not trying to win games, we’re trying to win this entire thing.’ And every single one of us believed wholeheartedly that we could have done it.

After arriving back in St. Louis, the team had the rest of Sunday and Monday off. They spent the time relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. Some congregated in Hardy’s suite on Monday and Tuesday evening to watch the two-part season finale of the television show “The Bachelor,” which many players had followed throughout the year. Others caught up on sleep. During the day on Tuesday and Wednesday, they were back in the gym for practice. For most, the coronavirus was still a distant thought.

Freshman forward Spencer Boehm: It’s weird not having classes and just playing basketball, but those are the periods that allow you to get super close with your teammates and just focus on the team. Most of the conversation was about how excited we were for the rest of the tournament, kind of cherishing the moments we had.

Assistant Athletic Director for Communications Chris Mitchell: I was at practice a couple of those days—we had some media come visit practice—and [the players] were totally locked in. You had a lot of seniors, so those guys didn’t want their careers to end. I think they realized that they got kind of a second chance, if that makes sense?

Sophomore guard Charlie Jacob: The thing that I’ll take away is just hearing the seniors. Just hearing them talk about what we needed to do in order to win on Friday and what it would it mean not only for us as a team, but for the program and the guys that came before us. I specifically remember those last couple practices those seniors stepping up and just being like ‘Yo, this is it. We have an opportunity to do it. The margin of error is so thin, we’ve just gotta be locked in and go do it.’

Juckem: There was an energy there. It was palpable. The guys were fired up.

The vibe changed on Wednesday night, the day before the team was to depart for the Sweet 16 game in Illinois. A National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star, Rudy Gobert, had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Hardy: We were going off to Ted Drewes to get some ice cream and on our way over, Charlie [Jacob] was looking at Twitter, and he’s like ‘Yo, Gobert just got coronavirus.’ We had talked about earlier and seen the reports about how the NBA had already decided to play with no fans or suspend the season for a little bit. That was before the Gobert news. When the Gobert news came out, we knew that was probably going to be the end for the NBA.

Juckem: I was sitting at my kitchen table and had [an NBA game] on in the background. I was working on doing some preparation and once that news flashed, I don’t know that I got any more work done the rest of the night.

Minutes later, Jacob read a sobering tweet. The NBA had suspended the season.

Jacob: I remember sitting in that Ted Drewes line, I’m not kidding, looking at the menu but in my head thinking ‘If the NBA just suspended their season, how are we going to play? How are we going to play on Friday? How are we going to finish the tournament? How are sports going to continue, because all it took was for one player to test positive?’

Juckem: I think that just the seriousness—what it takes to stop the NBA, you know—it was very real coming into that, but that certainly took it to another level.

Nolan: It was like, ‘Wow, it’s really here. It’s affecting our lives now.’

The second part of this three-part oral history can be found here.

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