Last week had started with so many glorious, big moments. The University of Portland women’s basketball team beat the top-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs on a floater from sophomore guard Haylee Andrews on Monday. They won the West Coast Conference Championship on Tuesday in overtime against the San Diego Toreros to clinch an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997. They returned to campus by Wednesday a team that typified what ‘March Madness’ is all about.
But by Thursday, the fruits of their labor were taken away when the NCAA announced the cancellation of the men’s and women’s tournament citing concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus, also referred to as COVID-19. That same day, first year head coach Michael Meek and the rest of the team had a meeting discussing the abrupt end of their season and reflecting on how special it had been.
“It was kind of sad because we didn’t realize that our season was over,” senior Kate Andersen said. “I didn’t realize that playing USD was our last game and I didn’t realize that playing USD was my last game as a senior, like, the very last game I was going to play in that uniform.”
March Madness is one of the biggest draws of the sports world every year, and the Pilots were about to partake in it for the first time in 23 years. But even with that opportunity being taken away from them due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the Pilots find themselves not reminiscing about what could’ve been, but instead reflecting on how great it was.
It was a historic season for Portland. The team finished 21-11, their best record since 1998. Their 11-7 conference record was their best since they went a perfect 14-0 in 1998 when the WCC featured only eight teams. The WCC championship marked their first title since 1994, a title they claimed after taking down three teams (the Pacific Tigers, Gonzaga and San Diego) that had swept them earlier in the season.
The cancellation came after several other leagues made similar moves. The NBA was the first to suspend their season indefinitely, followed by the MLS and the NHL. After almost every professional sports league had suspended their season and after previously deciding to hold the tournament without fans, the NCAA decided to cancel the tournament altogether.
“We all first found out the tournament was canceled as it was all over social media,” freshman forward Alex Fowler said in an email. “At first we weren't sure whether to believe it or not and were very worried. Once our coaches called a team meeting, we realized it actually was true. We all felt so upset and still shocked with everything. It felt like a roller coaster ride of emotions as we had just come off such a high winning the championship, thinking we would be preparing to go dancing.”
As much as it hurts them to not be able to enjoy the tournament, players understand that there is more at stake than their chance at a tournament run. Still, it doesn’t take away the sting of not being able to play.
“I was pretty upset because we have made it so far as a team,” Andersen said. “But at the end of the day there are bigger problems in this world and we have to adjust accordingly.”
Andrews echoed that sentiment. The sophomore guard is arguably the main reason the Pilots made it that far in the first place, hitting the game-winning shots against both Gonzaga and San Diego. But still, even though the reward for her late-game heroics was taken away, Andrews feels they have to move forward.
“It wasn’t the news we wanted but obviously it’s out of our control and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Andrews said. “We just have to deal with it.”
Junior Maddie Mulheim pointed out that even getting to play in their conference tournament was a blessing, one that other schools didn’t get the privilege of doing. Several conferences, including all Power 5 conferences such as the SEC, the PAC-12 and the Big 10, canceled their tournaments amid coronavirus concerns.
“We were super thankful that we had the opportunity to play in our conference tournament,” Mulheim said. “I think a lot of teams around the country weren’t able to do that so we’re really thankful to have had that opportunity.”
Even as the season ended on a disappointing note, they were able to still finish as one thing: champions. For a lot of the team, it was a season that was memorable for not just their accomplishments, but how they bonded both on and off the court.
“No other words describe it other than just fun,” Andrews said. “On the court, off the court, the team got along so well. We just have a bunch of awesome teammates and gals around us, especially coaches as well. It just made it so much easier to enjoy everything.”
It was also an auspicious start to the Michael Meek era. After experiencing great success at both the high school level and with Division 3 George Fox, Meek was able to bring his winning ways over to the Pilots in just one season. Andrews noted how difficult it can be bringing in a new coach, yet the team and Meek were able to make that connection.
“We didn’t know what to expect really,” Andrews said. “It’s either going to go really well or really bad and we’re just fortunate enough to get Mike and the other coaching staff who’re just a bunch of great people who made it so much easier.”
Meek set expectations high for this squad. Even after finishing only 13-17 the year before and 7-23 the year before that, Meek made it clear early on that they wanted to end the season as champions.
“All season coach Mike had been saying ‘Hey, we need to grow in this area, we’re going to try and go for that tournament championship,’” Andersen said. “He would mention that like after pretty much every game to us, and so he had it ingrained in our minds that when we get to the tournament, we’re trying to win.”
The Pilots are a young squad, too, with Andersen being the only senior on the roster. Fowler will return as both the WCC Newcomer of the Year and tournament MVP after averaging a conference-leading 18 points per game as well as 23.3 points per game during the WCC tournament. Tournament hero Andrews will also be back on the roster next season.
When reflecting on the year, Fowler noted that Andrews’s play should have earned her the MVP award, but either way, this was a season to remember and one they can build off of.
“It was an amazing year and I couldn't have gotten through this whole year without the support of my team, coaches and family back home,” Fowler said. “(I) honestly believe the MVP award should have gone to Haylee Andrews as she is a huge part of our team. The way she plays and leads our team really helped to all our success. We are all just very excited to see what will be happening in the next few years and in the upcoming season.”
Even if they don’t get to play in a tournament this season, getting the automatic bid in the first place showed the Pilots that they are capable of making it to the big dance. Pushing past that hump has shown the team that they can continue to place high expectations of themselves.
“I think just moving forward we’re definitely going to continue to set high goals for ourselves and just continue to push each other, knowing that we can achieve these types of things,” Mulheim said. “It’s not putting pressure on ourselves but just knowing the expectations that we have for ourselves and the sky’s the limit for this program.”
For the senior, Andersen, this season isn’t one she’ll just remember for how it ended too soon. It’s one she’ll remember for being easily the most accomplished and closest teams she has been a part of.
“This season was definitely number one for me,” Andersen said. “The coaches, the team, there are so many many factors that made this the best year ever, and honestly, I can’t say any other season has been better than this one.”
Kyle Garcia is the Sports editor for The Beacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.