Vandals, Cougars sent home early

A sign at T-Mobile Arena advertises the cancellation of the Pac-12 men's basketball tournament amid coronavirus fears Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Las Vegas. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. (AP Photo/John Locher)

About 12 hours after the Idaho women’s basketball team celebrated its semifinal-round win against Idaho State in the Big Sky tournament, the Vandals learned they would not play another game this season.

At around the same time, Washington State’s men’s team — which had just won its first Pac-12 tournament game since 2009, against Colorado — discovered it wouldn’t get a chance at Arizona State in the league tournament’s quarterfinal round Thursday.

No Big Sky championship game, no more Pac-12 tournament, no shot at the postseason.

Both conference tournaments, and the NCAA tournament, were canceled Thursday because of concerns about the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s an extremely heartbreaking decision for our players, staff and everyone else involved,” Idaho coach Jon Newlee said in a news release. “I’m just heartbroken for all the work and everything that we’ve done to get right to where we wanted to be, playing in the championship game against a team we split against, and to not be able to see the season finish.

“I understand the decision, following in line with all the conferences. I get it, but that doesn’t mean that we like it, but we move forward now whatever that means and whatever it will be. We will figure it out from here.”

Idaho ends its season with a 22-9 record. The Vandals were set to face Montana State (25-6), the conference’s regular-season champ, in today’s Big Sky championship game. Idaho would’ve been trying for its fifth league title in the past eight years.

“I’m really proud of this team, as proud of any team that I have coached, the way they have come together through a lot of adversity and everything else this year,” Newlee said. “It was a great season, but unfortunately it looks like it has come to an end. We will be back and going forward from here.”

The Cougs went 16-16 this year, their best finish since 2011-12 (19-18). Under first-year coach Kyle Smith, WSU had unprecedented success — it swept Washington, bested then-No. 8 Oregon and earned several defense-oriented victories past Cougar teams probably wouldn’t have.

No. 11 seed Wazzu upset nine-point favorite Colorado on Wednesday at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena, winning 82-68. It was the school’s first win in the “Pac-12” iteration of the tournament, and first “Pac” league tournament victory since March 11, 2009, when Tony Bennett’s WSU beat Ernie Kent’s Oregon team 62-40.

Sophomore CJ Elleby — who might turn pro this spring — erupted for 30 points, and senior workhorses Jervae Robinson, a guard, and forward Jeff Pollard grinded on defense. Pollard played 20 minutes, despite a broken finger on his left hand, which was wrapped extensively.

“No way. After fighting through everything this team has been through,” Pollard tweeted in reaction to the tournament cancellation. “I understand why, but losing another chance to fight for my brothers hurts me. So bad. Can’t believe it ... ”

Before Wednesday, the Cougars could have accepted an invite to the lower-level College Basketball Invitational tournament, but the event also was canceled.

WSU coach Kyle Smith, along with athletic director Pat Chun, were not available for comment.

Smith and Wazzu’s players were prepared to play in a relatively empty T-Mobile Arena — save some personnel, and close friends and family members, which were then allowed by the NCAA.

“Really, the energy comes from the locker room, and we’ll have to rely on each other for that,” Elleby said Wednesday.

Instead, WSU and Idaho spent much of Thursday scrambling to make their ways back to the Palouse, where life will continue on a strange course. Washington State has completely replaced in-person classes with online ones for the time being. Idaho will test that out from March 23-24, after spring break, and make a decision from there.

The conference and NCAA tournament cancellations come at a surreal time when the sports world as whole is being put on hold. From high school sports to major leagues, including the NBA, MLB, PGA and NHL, organizations are halting the action.

The NCAA on Wednesday announced the national tournament would go on but without fans in the stands, as would the remaining conference tournaments.

Then at about 9 a.m. Pacific on Thursday, several conference tournaments — like the Big Sky and Pac-12 — began to be scrapped one after the other, seeming to follow suit. The Ivy League was first on the draw, canceling athletic events for the remainder of the academic year at noon Wednesday.

At 1:16 p.m., the NCAA pulled the plug on their national tournaments, including all of them in spring sports.

The Idaho men’s basketball team wrapped up its season Wednesday with a 75-69 loss to Southern Utah in the first round.

UI men’s coach Zach Claus said his team found out about the cancellation right before it boarded a bus to return to Moscow.

“You feel bad for, obviously selfishly, for our women’s team and for the rest of the men’s teams that were still alive that they weren’t able to play it out,” Claus said. “But this is a whole lot bigger than simply a Big Sky tournament or any of the other tournaments across the country.

“We have to yield to the really smart folks in the medical field that we need to be patient and just wait to see what needs to be done for the overall health of our state and our country.”

Player reactions

Several Idaho and WSU players took to Twitter to share their reactions to the Big Sky cancellation. Here’s what they said:

Senior UI guard Lizzy Klinker:

“To say I am heartbroken would be an understatement. The monumentous (sic) strides we have made as a team this season proved we were determined for something great. We no longer have the chance to play our last 40 minutes to prove to the rest of the world how tough we are. #WeAreFierce”

Sophomore UI guard Gina Marxen:

“Wish it could’ve ended a different way, but I am so proud of this team. Thank you to the coaches, my team, and everyone involved who made this season such a success. Lastly, thank you Vandal Nation for your endless support. We’ll be back.”

Senior UI post Isabelle Hadden:

“This is more than just sports. These tournaments are the end goal that college athletes work their entire lives for. The sacrifices we have made and the hours and hours of work just to have our dream taken away is unimaginable. I know it has been my dream since I was a kid, along with every other college athlete, to have the opportunity to compete in a conference championship and NCAA tournament, and to have that opportunity taken away from us… What hurts the most is not being able to play one last game with my best friends and show the world how fierce and tough we really are.”

Junior WSU guard Isaac Bonton:

“So much more to prove ...”

Freshman WSU guard Noah Williams:

“Might as well just cancel the world. (Shake my head). I’m HOT.”

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