University of Arkansas at Little Rock men's basketball players, coaches and staff members filtered out of the locker room area inside the Jack Stephens Center early Thursday afternoon, all with a similar feeling weighing over them -- what now?
"I don't know what to do," assistant coach Preston Laird said in a baffled tone.
Trojans players, and eventually UALR Coach Darrell Walker, then filed down the hallway. They all didn't know it then, but these were the final moments of the Trojans' season -- players and coaches heading out after one final team meeting and into the unknown.
The entire sports world around them twisted and turned at every second as concerns over the threat of the coronavirus continued to grow.
"Safety has to come before winning something. You're dealing with people's children, and you have to try to keep them safe," Walker said. "Everybody's being careful, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that."
The Sun Belt Conference on Thursday morning canceled the remainder of its men's and women's basketball tournaments.
The league's basketball semifinals and championship games were set to be played at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on Saturday and Sunday. The top-seeded Trojans already were on a bus headed to New Orleans on Thursday morning, but they had pulled off the highway near Pine Bluff to await word on a potential tournament cancellation.
The team had held a practice at 8 a.m. -- its final practice of the season -- before it boarded its charter and left the Jack Stephens Center around 10 a.m. Soon after the bus left, the Sun Belt announced that the league's tournament was still on but would be closed to fans, something that other conferences had prepared to do.
It took 78 minutes for the Sun Belt to reverse course and cancel the event. The bus was turned around and headed back to Little Rock.
NCAA President Mark Emmert announced Wednesday that both the men's and women's basketball tournaments would be played without fans. By Thursday afternoon, the NCAA had called off all remaining winter and spring sports championships, including the men's and women's national tournaments.
The Trojans' season was over, abruptly putting an end to a dramatic run that saw the program win its first Sun Belt regular-season championship in four years after it was picked 11th of 12 in the league's preseason coaches poll. UALR finished 21-10 a year after it finished 10-21 in Walker's first season.
"I just told those guys what we accomplished this year cannot be taken away," Walker said. "I feel like we're champs. The chemistry on this team was just unbelievable. Fun group to coach, man."
Two more wins had stood between UALR and its sixth NCAA Tournament berth. The Trojans were set to play fifth-seeded Georgia Southern in Saturday's semifinals at 11:30 a.m.
"It's heartbreaking," UALR Athletic Director George Lee said. "I was here when Chris Beard won the conference tournament in 2016, and the emotions of going through that and going into the NCAA Tournament and be able to get a win -- and knowing that our team, I think, really could have done the same thing but not having the opportunity to do that -- it's devastating, and I can't underscore that enough."
The Trojans can take solace knowing their young roster has all of its starters and key bench pieces set to return next season. But the what-ifs about this season will linger.
"This will be in the history books 50 years from now that this happened," Walker said with a laugh. "But still, it doesn't take away from what we accomplished. If this would have happened last year, winning 10 games, nobody would have gave a crap."
Sports on 03/13/2020
Print Headline: Trojans' journey is turned around