With no margin for error in its bid for another NCAA Tournament berth, the Fort Hays State women’s basketball team reeled off six wins in a row late in the season to secure a third straight regional berth for the first time in program history.
But the Tigers were unable to reap the rewards from their strong finish, ending the season "in the weirdest way possible," as FHSU coach Tony Hobson put it.
The Tigers were brimming with confidence as they geared up for a first-round matchup against Minnesota Duluth last Friday in Warrensburg, Mo. However, the NCAA announced Thursday it was canceling all winter and spring championships because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We’re in pre-game mode, getting ready for regionals, pretty excited," Hobson said. "Really liked our draw. I thought we had a great chance to get through to the finals. I liked our chances, because we had been playing good and we were relatively healthy. Just liked where we were at."
The Tigers arrived in Warrensburg on Wednesday. On Thursday morning, it was announced the tournament was set to be played with only limited attendance that included family members.
"We thought, you know, it’s going to be kind of quiet in the gym, but that’s OK, we’re still going to get to play," Hobson said.
Thursday afternoon, the NCAA announced its decision to cancel all tournaments.
"Boom, all the sudden it comes to a screeching halt," Hobson said. "You just go from a hundred miles an hour of full-game prep and playing mode, and then it comes to a screeching halt.
"It’s just kind of a roller-coaster for your team, and the seniors go through a whole different range of emotions. Their careers come to just the weirdest end possible"
While saddened by the abrupt end, Hobson said he understood the decision.
"It’s something that happened pretty fast," he said. "Everybody’s just being real cautious with something that they feel is warranted and they think it’s dangerous enough that we need to do that.
"I think they look at it as just a lost opportunity that there’s nothing you can do about. There’s nobody to blame. ... Who do you blame? It’s just one of those things that happens. It’s tough because they have a lot invested."
The Tigers had five seniors — Belle Barbieri, Kacey Kennett, Taylor Rolfs, Lanie Page and Kyleigh Kasper. Page was lost for the season after tearing her ACL in December and is seeking a medical redshirt.
Barbieri, Kennett and Rolfs have been integral in helping the Tigers win 100-plus games over the last four years.
"There’s no instruction manual for this," Hobson said. "Each one of them kind of handled it a little bit different. We have such a big senior class — primarily all four-year kids who have been here a long time. This was going to be the first time ever in school history that somebody’s went (to the regional) three years in a row.
"Then to boot, you’re going when you have a really good chance to win. It isn’t like when somebody’s going to the Division I Tournament as the 16 seed and they’re going to play Baylor, and they have a zero percent chance to win. I think we had a great chance to win a game or two, and so did our kids. Our kids were confident."
A year after going 32-2 and reaching the regional final, the Tigers finished with a 23-7 mark.
"It can’t be considered anything other than a really good year," Hobson said. "I wouldn’t say it was just great, great like last year was. Now every year of ours for the next few years is going to be compared to last year when you have one loss until the last game. It’s pretty hard to live up to.
"We didn’t lose a game this season to a poor team," Hobson added. "We finished strong. I thought our team really showed some grit and finished strong."