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Paul Danzer On College Hoops: State's premier basketball teams left with what-ifs

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Fans are not allowed inside as Sheldon and McMinnville play a Class 6A girls basketball tournament game March 11 at Chiles Center. It was one of the final events of the high school sports year, for the foreseeable future.Closure.

As the sports world shut down over the COVID-19 threat, the word closure took on an extra meaning for basketball teams whose seasons were abruptly halted at their crescendo.

Given the risks posted by this pandemic, cancelling the NCAA basketball tournaments was the only option. But the timing of this crisis is awful for the University of Oregon women's basketball team, which was about to make a serious run at the program's first national championship.

"I'll just say it: I think we were the best team in the country. We were playing as well, if not better, than anybody," Ducks coach Kelly Graves said during a March 13 press conference at Matthew Knight Arena. "We obviously had a mission, and we had a reason to really want to get this done. It's unfortunate that that's taken away, but it certainly won't take away in the long run from all the great memories that we had and the things that we accomplished."

Now, Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard, Satou Sabally and their UO teammates won't get to finish that last bit of business.

But the Ducks got more closure to the 2019-20 season than most teams. They got to celebrate a Pac-12 championship and senior day after two emotional games at sold-out MKA. And, in their final game together, they looked every bit the best team in America while thrashing a good Stanford team, 89-56, for the Pac-12 tournament championship.

"To some degree, we had a sense of closure," Graves said. "The last thing that we were able to do was cut down nets and celebrate a championship, and I think that's better than a lot of spring sports athletes who really haven't even had a chance to start their sports."

Still, among the many things Graves' team will be long remembered for will be that question: What if?

"I'm trying personally to get over this and move on to what's next. But there's always going to be a hole in my heart for this group of seniors," Graves said.

"This team will always be remembered — maybe now for a couple of reasons —  but certainly because of the special people they are individually, and then the greatness of this group collectively," Graves said.

The pain was no less acute in Corvallis. It came through in the voice of senior Mikayla Pivec on a March 13 teleconference with reporters, and in the way junior Aleah Goodman talked about Pivec and the Beavers' other seniors.

The Oregon State women's team perhaps had less closure than any in the region when the NCAA Tournament was cancelled. Despite an up and down Pac-12 season that ended in the tournament quarterfinals, coach Scott Rueck spoke with confidence about how ready his team was the for NCAA tourney.

But what hurt the Beavers' coach most was that his team's end-of-season banquet, scheduled for late April, also was cancelled.

"My favorite part of the year is listening to them share their senior speech at our banquet. I don't know how to recreate that," Rueck said. "But they deserve that opportunity. They're getting shortchanged, so what can we do to make it right?"

The Oregon men and Portland women also qualified for the NCAA Tournament, while the Oregon State men and Portland State men were still in contention in their conference tournaments.

Oregon guard Payton Pritchard was looking forward to leading the Ducks into the NCAA tourney for a third time, and to sharing a run with tournament first-timers and fellow senors Anthony Mathis and Shakur Juiston.

"I really felt like this team, we had a chance to do something special," Pritchard said.

At least the Duck men and Pilot women each got to celebrate a win in their final game. Oregon cut down the nets on March 8 after clinching the Pac-12 regular-season title. With only one senior, Portland made a remarkable run to win the West Coast Conference women's tournament and qualify for the NCAAs for the first time since 1997.

"Everybody's disappointed not having the opportunity to represent the university and play in the NCAA Tournament," Pilots coach Michael Meek said. "But decisions are being made for the right reasons, and the people making the decisions have a lot more information than I do."

The Portland State men were on a roll heading into the Big Sky Tournament, winning six in a row to close the regular season.

"We had a good focus and the team was excited to go to the tournament and make a run," Vikings coach Barret Peery said.

The team found out they weren't playing about four hours before their conference tournament opener. Peery, whose team had six seniors, said there were tears and devastated looks on the faces of players.

Oregon men's basketball coach Dana Altman noted that his 87-year-old father is in assisted living.

"That's the first concern," Altman said. "Then you start thinking about older people that you know. I'm over 60, so I'm in that (higher-risk) group."

Altman said cancelling the NCAA Tournament is a small thing.

"There's a health crisis going on," Altman said. "Payton's grandfather, what if he's following the team and something happens to him? You put everything in perspective, you wouldn't want that."

With a deep run for the Oregon men, Pritchard might have challenged Ronnie Lee's program record of 2,075 career points. The Pac-12 player of the year and a nominee for several national awards, Pritchard finishes his Oregon career as the program leader in wins (105), assists (659) and games started (140). His 211 steals are three shy of the program record (Kenya Wilkins, 1993-97) and his 1,938 points rank fourth.

Pritchard won't come back for another year if the NCAA allows this year's winter sports seniors to play one more season — an idea that's been floated but might be logistically difficult.

"He's ready. He could have went (to the NBA) last year. He turned down a very good financial offer a year ago," Altman said. "He played so well this year, it's time. He's ready."

Pritchard agreed, but said he supports the idea of letting this year's seniors play an additional season.

"I feel for every athlete. There's really nothing like (the NCAA Tournament)," Pritchard said.

Pivec said she'd jump at the chance to play one more season for the Beavers. But her focus this week was on two final exams.

Her coach equated missing out on the NCAA Tournament to not getting to complete a senior project.

"As an athlete, you prepare your entire career for your senior year, and the end of it," Rueck said. "You are preparing the entire time to lead your team into the NCAA Tournament when you're a senior. That is your thesis. That's your final moment."

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