From chasing a championship to searching for closure: Men’s basketball’s final week, in the Bears’ own words, Part 2

| Senior Sports Editor

This is the second part of a three-part oral history of the Washington University men’s basketball team’s final week. Read the first part here.

After beating Bethany Lutheran College and Nebraska Wesleyan University in the first two rounds of the NCAA Division III tournament, the Washington University men’s basketball team had spent days preparing for its Sweet 16 matchup against No. 11 North Central College. The University had already announced Wednesday that classes would be moved online after Spring Break, but athletics were still going on. Especially after the diagnosis of NBA All-Star Rudy Gobert on Wednesday night, the players knew that their season was in jeopardy. However, the team still soldiered on. They were on the bus to North Central’s home in Naperville, Ill. by 7 a.m. Thursday, freshly supplied with a Chick-fil-A breakfast thanks to Assistant Coach Kevin Dux.

Senior center Hank Hunter: On the bus ride to North Central that morning, we kinda knew that it was gonna get canceled. If it wasn’t this weekend against North Central, it was going to get canceled for the Fort Wayne trip [to the Elite Eight and Final Four]. But I think Coach [Juckem] did a really good job of being like ‘We can’t control this. We can only control what we can control, so let’s stay focused on what we’re here to do. And if something does happen that’s outside of our control, it does. But we have to do our part.’

Sophomore forward Justin Hardy: With about an hour or two hours left to go, more and more sports started to get called off and we’re sitting there like ‘Are we even going to practice today?’ So we were in the back of the bus making bets on when we thought the NCAA was going to cancel sports. I set the line at 5:58 p.m. [Senior guard Jonathan] Arenas took the under, so I owe him some money for that one.

Assistant Athletic Director for Communications Chris Mitchell: There was just so much happening during that time frame. It seemed like every five or 10 minutes, something else was coming out.

Head coach Pat Juckem: I think we got to the hotel and started hearing that schools were suspending spring sports, that schools like Duke [University] were seemingly not going to participate in the NCAA tournament. I guess, privately, and certainly the health of our players was of utmost [importance], like we had been sort of sequestering ourselves—we hadn’t been out and about much—privately, I just wanted to get to our three o’clock practice. Your season always ends on the wood, on the floor. A win or a loss—the majority of the time it’s a loss unless you win a national championship or don’t qualify for the tournament—usually there’s closure.

Despite the impending cancellation, the Bears went through their normal routine. They checked into the hotel, ate lunch, watched film and headed to the North Central gym for practice, just as they would have under any circumstances. But the vibe was different.

Freshman forward Spencer Boehm: We were just kind of enjoying the last moments we had, even though none of us accepted the fact that it was ending. I remember we were bumping music in the locker room, all just dancing and goofing around for one last time, whether we knew it or not.

Hardy: As soon as we stepped on the floor it was back to normal. There’s just a competitiveness to everyone on our team that when we’re at practice, we’re at practice. Yeah we had fun with it, 100%, and we were goofing off quite a bit, but each drill we were doing was competitive to the fullest. Basketball was the only way we were all going to get to stay together. There was going to be more than a basketball game or a basketball season that was on the line Friday night. If we lost Friday, then we were going home. Home, home. So our mentality was that if we wanted to spend any more time together we would have to win this game. We wanted to win the game to keep our time together alive.

Junior guard Jack Nolan: We were going through a shell drill, just a scout of North Central’s action, and I noticed that Chris Mitchell was talking with the NCAA compliance guy over on the side. They didn’t look like they had good news.

Mitchell: North Central has a track around their facility and I was getting a run in when I got a text from my wife [the Sports Information Director at the University of Missouri St. Louis] at 3:30 that said ‘All NCAA championships are cancelled.’ So that stopped my run. I went up to the NCAA rep and I said ‘Do you want me to tell Coach or do you want to?’ and he said ‘You know, you work with him every day, you’re welcome to go tell him.’ So I went and stood on the court, you know, next to Coach Juckem. And literally, I stood there for 10 minutes and I couldn’t find the urge to stop Coach, because he was in his coaching zone. The negative, though, was that [senior guard] Matt Nester looked over at me from the sidelines. He wasn’t on the court at the time, and he could tell that something was up. And then I saw Jack Nolan, who was also not on the court, and [Matt] put his arm around Jack, to kind of console him, and they had a pretty good idea of what was going on.

Hunter: C-Mitch’s phone starts blowing up. A bunch of messages, like you could just hear it buzzing and beeping. I look over at him and he just has a face of disappointment. And he’s just nodding his head. They let Coach keep coaching for four or five more minutes after I knew it was done. C-Mitch just didn’t want to be the guy to come on and stop it.

Juckem: I’ve got pretty tunnel vision, so I was oblivious to Chris at that point, still, and I don’t know how long that went on. The NCAA site rep eventually just walked on the floor and said ‘I’m sorry, Pat, but the NCAA has decided to cancel and you have to put the balls away.’ That was an unreal and unfathomable way to have your season come to an end.

Courtesy of Chris Mitchell

The men’s basketball team says a sorrow farewell to their season as they learn that the NCAA championships have been cancelled.

Senior forward DeVaughn Rucker: You think something is not going to happen but when it does, it shocks you, even if you knew the possibility of it happening. We went from locked in to just overly sad and just having to deal with something that was out of our control.

Mitchell: There was definitely a sense of quiet there in the air for a minute. And then [Juckem] went over and he took everybody to half court.

Hunter: That was a pretty monumental moment in my life and definitely a lot of my friends’ and teammates’ lives too, just being able to circle up and debrief on everything. Coach gave a really good speech about how it was more than a game. About how obviously, this was terrible. But at the end of the day, the wins and losses aren’t what’s going to justify you as a person. It’s the relationships.

Hardy: These are the kinds of guys that are going to be at your weddings and are going to be there for you whenever you need something throughout the course of life. And that’s what’s truly special about our group. It wasn’t that we were great basketball players. [Juckem’s] message was more along the lines of ‘The relationships that we’ve built can’t get taken from us, although this game just was.’ That was a powerful message.

Sophomore guard Charlie Jacob: We were standing in a circle and kind of just opened up the floor. The seniors were stepping up and saying their piece about how much it had meant for them to be on this team. And that’s when I broke down. It’s just hard. That moment is something I’ll never forget.

Hunter: It was a special, special moment. Both sad and just like—I don’t even know the words to really describe it. As a senior, I was supposed to have some more time to debrief with these guys and get closure, to say my goodbyes properly. The fact that we had to just come back, pack up and leave definitely really hurt for everybody.

The third part of this three-part oral history will be published on Wednesday.

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