ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — When Siena men’s basketball head coach Carmen Maciariello told his players the remainder of the MAAC tournament had been canceled, he was confirming what they already knew was coming, not breaking news to them.
“They expected it to happen,” Maciariello said minutes after the MAAC made the decision to shut down its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, as well as cancel the rest of its spring sports season.
Hours later, the NCAA announced that it was canceling all of its remaining winter and spring championships, too, including its beloved “March Madness” tournament that Siena would have represented the MAAC in as its regular-season champion following the MAAC tournament’s cancellation.
“This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities,” the NCAA’s statement, in part, reads.
And, just like that, the Saints’ season was complete, along with those of so many other programs chasing after the dream that is to play in the NCAA tournament. The Saints stuck around Atlantic City for a bit after their season closed, and had one final team meal together at a P.F. Chang's before heading back to their campus in Loudonville to pack belongings so they could head home for spring break, which Siena earlier in the week extended to run through next week because of the “unpredictable spread of the coronavirus disease.”
“Obviously, it’s not what we wanted to hear. It’s sad for the guys,” Maciariello said in a phone interview. “When you give everything you have to a season, a team and a program, and you love being around the guys and the process of getting better, you realize the joy is in the journey, and I truly felt that with these guys.”
One night prior, the top-seeded Saints — back on top of the MAAC for the first time in a decade — had breezed through their quarterfinal against Manhattan, earned their 10th consecutive win in decisive fashion, and left the floor at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall believing that no team in the MAAC could stop them.
“I just think that if we stick with what we do, game to game, and learn from our opponents, we’ll be in good shape,” Siena redshirt sophomore Don Carey said after the Saints’ 63-49 win, which pushed their record to 20-10. “That’s all we’re focusing on. Day to day, one game at a time. We’re not worried about the last game, the last five games or the 10-game streak. Game to game, practice to practice, day to day — that’s our focus.”
“We want to win, so we’ve got to bring it every game,” fifth-year senior Elijah Burns said that night. “We’ve got to play [every game] like it’s our last, and give everything we’ve got. Every opportunity we’ve got, we’ve got to make the most of it.”
Then, Burns, Carey and their teammates left the facility. All they talked about that night, Maciariello said, was that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus and that the NBA season had been suspended. The team showed up Thursday to support the Siena women’s team during its game against Fairfield, a contest that saw the Stags score a 72-56 win in what became the final game of the MAAC tournament.
“Some strange times that we’re living in right now,” Siena women’s head coach Ali Jaques said after her team’s season closed with a 10-20 mark.
The Siena men’s team left that game at halftime to practice. By that time, the players’ conversation had shifted to noticing how one conference tournament after another had canceled, and the realization started to set in that the MAAC tournament’s close was a matter of when, not if.
The MAAC canceled its tournament, which started Tuesday, after every league in the country, with the exception of the MEAC. The MAAC announced Wednesday night that its tournament would continue Thursday without fans in attendance, but MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor announced the MAAC tournament’s cancellation in a press conference not even 17 full hours later.
“We don’t know the scope of this . . . pandemic that’s underway,” Ensor said. “We certainly want to protect our student-athletes. We wanted to maintain, to the extent we could, as long as we could, the opportunity for them to earn it on the floor, but events just overtook us.”
Siena athletic director John D’Argenio said Thursday started with the MAAC still believing it could finish its tournament. Within hours, that changed.
“As more things developed throughout the day and more information became available, we just felt we couldn’t wait any longer to make a decision,” D’Argenio said. “We’d hoped to understand where the NCAA was going to be with its tournament because, obviously, if that was canceled, there was no need to move forward with ours.”
The one-bid nature of the MAAC, Ensor said, played a role in the conference trying to see its tournament to conclusion. The veteran commissioner said he tried to rely on NCAA and state officials to guide the decision-making process, but that pressure from MAAC presidents started to build Thursday morning as league representatives initially met to discuss canceling spring sports. Ensor said there had been “internal staff discussions” prior to the MAAC tournament about canceling it, but the league — like so many others around the country — thought it had time for the games to be played.
“Coming into the week, I really thought we probably had 10 days before this would really get to this point,” Ensor said. “We didn’t have that luxury, as it turned out.”
Ensor’s voice trembled and he paused multiple times answering a question about the impact of the day’s decisions on senior athletes.
“Well,” Ensor said, “I can’t tell you how much I personally regret having to do this, and I share their pain.”
As the week progressed, though, decisions were made in an attempt to slow a growing crisis that the World Health Organization declared Wednesday to be a pandemic. Sports, nearly completely, have halted as the nation grapples with the heath challenge it now faces. Professional leagues are suspending seasons, spring college seasons are being canceled and New York’s high school sports scene faces an uncertain future, to say the least, after the New York State Public High School Athletic Association “postponed indefinitely” Thursday its winter championships.
Even with so many cancellations and postponements occurring, the cancellation of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments acted as perhaps the most sobering acknowledgment of the country’s health crisis. Those tournaments dominate an entire month of the calendar, and tickets for this year’s men’s games that were scheduled to be played at Times Union Center in Albany were sold out months ago.
But, even just minutes after a win for his program and before the NCAA tournaments were canceled, Fairfield women’s basketball head coach Joe Frager knew what was coming — and was OK with it.
“Look,” Frager said, “everyone loves basketball, everyone loves March Madness — but this is a bigger situation than just basketball games.”
Later, he added: “We’re just real proud of our kids and we just hope that as a country, as a nation, we can get a handle on this and minimize its effects.”
It was several weeks ago that Siena women’s head coach Ali Jaques had given her team the responsibility to follow more closely national and world news. She smiled Thursday as she told that story, about how she had made that assignment after she’d told her team that sophomore Margo Peterson — increasingly becoming a vocal leader for the youthful squad — needed “to be like Nancy Pelosi and be the Speaker for the team.”
“Not everybody knew who Nancy Pelosi was,” Jaques continued “so then we started to have some lessons on leadership in our country.”
So when Jaques’ Saints met for breakfast Thursday morning, she knew her players were aware what was going on around them in the world.
“And it wasn’t exactly encouraging what we were watching [on the news],” Jaques said. “I think that we took [into our game] the approach that you can only control what you can control, and this potentially could be our last game together, so we’ve got to enjoy the moment and live in the moment as best as we possibly can.”
A first-year head coach at his alma mater, Maciariello guided his program to wins in 13 of its last 14 games. The Saints’ season appeared to have its best — and most important — games in front of it, but won’t get to play them.
That hurts — but Maciariello knew why it was the right call.
“You want what’s best for the student-athletes,” Maciariello said.
And, right now, that means the games cannot continue.
“It’s a tough day in sports,” Ensor said, “as this country faces a major crisis.”