GREENSBORO, N.C. — It took fewer than 24 hours for COVID-19 to erase the joy the Virginia men’s basketball team felt after Reece Beekman’s buzzer-beater toppled Syracuse.
A day after advancing to the ACC Tournament semifinals with Beekman’s heroics, the Cavaliers left Greensboro in a somber mood. Instead of battling Georgia Tech for a spot in the ACC Tournament championship game, a positive COVID-19 test result sent the Cavaliers back to Charlottesville. It also left the ACC a bit stunned, especially after Duke’s virus-induced departure Thursday.
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams even considered not playing Friday night against FSU, noting Virginia’s departure and the desire to be healthy for the NCAA Tournament.
“I did think about it, but I don’t think there’s any great answer,” Williams said. “I mean, I really don’t. It’s sort of like, ‘Don’t play football.’ Well, you can get hurt trying to cross the street.”
Williams stressed that it’s a “difficult time” for everyone, but with no perfect decision on the table his team played. Skipping the semifinal game wouldn’t necessarily decrease the team’s risk of contracting the virus.
Unlike Williams, Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton spent no time Friday wondering if his team should drop out of the conference tournament after UVa’s disappointing news. The Seminoles played, taking down UNC 69-66 to earn a spot in the ACC Tournament championship game.
“These kids have made such a tremendous sacrifice all year and our kids have been tremendous,” Hamilton said. “For me to not want to play because of somebody else’s unfortunate challenge, I thought would be tremendously unfair and disrespectful to the ACC and to the team, North Carolina — who wanted to play — and for the sacrifices that our players have made.”
Hamilton and the Seminoles took note of the premature exits by Duke and UVa, though. They advanced to the tournament semifinals after Duke’s exit, and the date with Georgia Tech in the finals came about in part due to UVa’s leaving.
“It’s sad to see those teams go out with COVID,” Florida State freshman guard Scottie Barnes said.
The Seminoles dealt with a pair of COVID pauses in the regular season, missing four games due to virus issues within their own program. They’ve been able to play in the postseason, however, testing negative for COVID-19 in recent days.
“It just shows that regardless of what you’re doing, you’ve got to be a little lucky,” Hamilton said.
Georgia Tech benefited from UVa’s departure, earning a spot in the conference title game. The Yellow Jackets were excited to qualify for the championship, but they wanted to earn their spot in the marquee game on the court.
“We would have loved to play tonight,” Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner said Friday. “We wanted another opportunity. You’re playing Virginia; they’re the defending national champions. They’re the league champions.”
Pastner bumped into a couple members of UVa’s coaching and support staff as the Cavaliers checked out of their hotel Friday morning. As Virginia’s staff members left, Pastner shared well wishes and words of encouragement.
For Georgia Tech’s head coach, UVa represents one of the best programs in not only the league but in all of college hoops. Virginia is the only ACC team Pastner has never defeated while leading the Yellow Jackets, and he considers Tony Bennett a future Hall of Fame head coach.
He wants the reigning national champions in the Big Dance, if it’s deemed safe for them to make it to Indianapolis next week.
“I hope they get to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Pastner said. “It would be devastating for them to not play. They deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament … we really hope they get to play for their student-athletes because they’ve earned the right to be a really good seed and they’re a really good team.”
UVa plans to exhaust all options to compete in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Contact tracing and future COVID-19 test results will likely determine the Cavaliers’ postseason fate.
Virginia on top of the world Thursday afternoon. Friday morning, reality hit.
COVID-19 remains a fierce opponent as teams try to navigate March.