Women's NCAA basketball coaches wondering 'what could have been' after coronavirus cancellation

Could NCAA allow another year of eligibility for seniors? (1:17)

Jay Bilas contends that the NCAA could absolutely allow another year of eligibility for seniors, but there would be a few challenges to overcome. (1:17)

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley had no idea what to do Friday with the unexpected spare time on her hands. She visited the new home she's having built, but soon after arriving, she realized she wasn't in the right mindset to help with anything.

"So I'm sitting here on an unfinished deck, looking out on the river," Staley said, "and just thinking about what could have been."

Like other college coaches, athletes and fans all over the country, Staley was grappling with what felt like the furthest thing from normal after the NCAA announced Thursday the cancellation of all winter and spring sports championships, including the men's and women's basketball tournaments, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Staley's Gamecocks (32-1) were the nation's top-ranked team -- their only loss was on Thanksgiving day -- and they were expected to be the No. 1 overall seed in Greenville, South Carolina, where they won the SEC tournament title on Sunday. Staley had given her players four days off, and they were supposed to be back on campus for practice Friday.

Instead, the whole team and Staley shared a heartfelt group text on Thursday while trying to come to grips with the season's sudden end.

"I know what's going on is all really bigger than basketball," Staley said. "But you can't just cut off your emotions and feelings for something that you've worked for not just months but years. It takes years to be in position to compete for a national championship."

As coach of the U.S. national team, Staley has another championship she still hopes to pursue in 2020: a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. But she is also concerned about whether that event will be played. On Friday, USA Basketball announced that it was suspending all events until further notice and would continue to monitor the situation.

Meanwhile, the other three women's basketball teams projected to be No. 1 seeds -- Oregon, Baylor and Maryland -- are also lamenting a lost opportunity, as was 11-time champion UConn, which was looking to extend its streak of 12 consecutive appearances in the national semifinals. What everyone anticipated as an epic finale in New Orleans will never be.

"Even getting to the Final Four was going to be an incredible journey for a lot of teams. The amount of upsets this year -- way different than in the past," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said in a teleconference Friday.

The Huskies finished 29-3, with all their losses -- to Baylor, Oregon and South Carolina -- coming to projected No. 1 seeds. Auriemma said he thought his team was blossoming in the past month after he earlier thought UConn might be in for "a load of disappointment at the end of this season."

"It all turned around. It all became what we wanted it to be," he said. "We started to act like and started to carry ourselves like a team that could compete for a championship."

Oregon, with star Sabrina Ionescu having an incredible season, is the only one of these five teams that hasn't won an NCAA title. The Ducks reached the Final Four for the first time last year and fell to Baylor in the semifinals.

Oregon this season went 31-2 and had won 19 in a row. The Ducks will lose their top trio of Ionescu, who finished her NCAA career with a record 26 triple-doubles, senior Ruthy Hebard and junior Satou Sabally, who has said she will leave early for the WNBA draft.

"It's unfortunate we didn't get to see them in the tournament. Because I think it would have been a really special run," Oregon coach Kelly Graves said in a news conference Friday. "There won't be another group like this ever. We might have equally impressive teams, but what this group did to capture the imagination and the attention and the love of a new fan base was incredible."

At least South Carolina, Oregon, Maryland and UConn were able to end this season by winning conference tournament championships. Baylor didn't get the chance, as the Big 12 women's tournament was scheduled a week later than those of the other Power 5 conferences.

The Lady Bears (28-2) were upset in their regular-season finale on Sunday at Iowa State, their first loss to a Big 12 foe in three years. After seeing their 58-game winning streak snapped, they were itching to get back on the court Friday to avenge that in going for their 11th Big 12 tournament title.

But they never made the trip to Kansas City. As the team plane sat waiting to take off from Waco, Texas, on Thursday, word came that the Big 12 tournament had been canceled. At that point, everyone feared that the NCAA tournament would be next.

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey issued a statement Friday saying that she was sensitive to the need for everyone to do their part to ensure public safety.

"We were, however, disappointed to learn that we would not be able to have the opportunity to defend our national championship," Mulkey said. "I was shocked to learn of the NCAA's decision to cancel, rather than postpone, the championship.

"It would be helpful to all of us to know what information the decision-makers had that resulted in the outright cancellation of the championship, rather than an attempt to delay until the situation improves."

Mulkey and many other coaches, including Auriemma, said they hope the NCAA will consider giving seniors in basketball and other winter/spring sports an extra year of eligibility.

No one is prepared for the 2020 season to end as it has.

Maryland coach Brenda Frese, whose 28-4 Terps had won 17 games in a row, said this team reminded her of her 2006 NCAA championship squad: a bit under the radar but peaking at the perfect time.

She said her players were all together in the locker room when she broke the news that the NCAA tournament had been canceled.

"Our first player to say anything was senior Blair Watson, who said, 'I love you guys,'" Frese said.

As difficult as the situation was, Frese tried to put it into perspective. One of her twin sons, Tyler, was diagnosed with childhood leukemia in 2010, when he was 2. He had his final round of chemotherapy in December 2013 and has been cancer-free since then.

"Luckily, we've had a happy ending to that," she said. "And I have parents in their 80s. I don't want someone spreading this virus to them. So this is so much bigger than sports."

Still, sports is an enormous part of our culture. Auriemma, a huge sports fan himself, was asked about the impact of the sports world pretty much shutting down.

"Sports is what separates people from worrying about color, religion, race," Auriemma said. "Sports is the one thing that makes people come together and rally around, my team vs. your team. And now the one thing that sports does -- bring people together in one place to share that experience ... the sharing of the experience is what causes the people to get sick and some people to eventually die from this disease.

"So all the great things that sports brings us are a negative at this point in time. Which is totally, incredibly mind-boggling. And then to add insult to injury, OK, well you can't go to the game. Well, not only that, now I can't sit at home and watch it. So what are we left with?"

Auriemma then suggested that perhaps it all helps put sports into perspective.

"People treat winning and losing like it's life and death," he said. "Maybe in some philosophical way ... this is a reminder that it's a game, man.

"All these miserable people that all they want to do is complain about a kid missing a free throw, a kid throwing a ball away, what are you going to complain about now? And all those happy people that missed the enjoyment of watching a game? I feel for them."