By WORTHY EVANS
Why He Took Time To Tell His Team
In February 2019, a young but surprising Benedict women’s basketball team had finished the regular season with 20 wins and a 15-0 SIAC conference record. Then on the first day of the conference tournament, the Tigers took a 74-61 loss to Lane, an under-.500 team that went on to win the conference championship.
Since that loss, Benedict has been on a mission to not only win the SIAC championship in 2020, but also to play for the NCAA Division II championship. With that in mind, the Tigers breezed through the regular season with a 24-3 record and claimed the SIAC title in three lights-out victories over Paine, Lemoyne-Owen, and Tuskegee.
By that time, the big letdown was a lower-than-expected 6-seeding that Coach James Rice and the team found out during the NCAA Division II Tournament selection show March 8.
“We thought we’d go first or second seed, but we kept going through and going through, thinking the next team was going to be us, but it wasn’t,” said Rice, whose team was matched with No.3 seed Tampa in the South Regional. “We were like, ‘OK, we’re better than that. We just got to stay upbeat and ready to prove ourselves.’ We thought we were a higher seed, and we were ready to prove to the world that we’ve got a really good program over here on a D2 level.”
Ay’Anna Bey, speaking via telephone from her home in Blackwood, New Jersey, said her teammates shared that feeling with their coach. Bey, who led the team in scoring with 17.5 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, took the 6-seeding with a grain of salt.
“It was definitely disappointing,” she said. “We thought we would be seeded a little higher, especially since we were ranked nationally (No.10 in the WBCA Coaches Poll) at that point. I thought we would at least be in the top five. But we like to be the underdogs, it makes us fight even harder.” Meanwhile, the spread of the coronavirus had gone worldwide, prompting a range of responses, from quarantining and border closures to the entire shutdown of Italy. In the United States, public activities began to get cancelled across the country as the nation worked to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
By the time the SIAC tournament concluded, the NBA resolved to hold games that were closed to public attendance. When Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus March 11, Utah’s game at Oklahoma City was immediately suspended before the tip-off, and the NBA further announced the suspension of all games until further notice.
In Cleveland, Tenn., that Thursday March 12, Benedict prepared to play Tampa in Lee University’s Paul Dana Walker Arena the next day. By the time they hit the practice floor the day before their game, the Tigers were going to play Tampa without a crowd.
“We knew it was going to be without crowds when we were going up on the bus,” Bey said. “The NBA was going to have games without any fans and we knew the NCAA would follow suit. We were like, OK, that’s going to be weird, but no matter what the situation was, we were going to play and have the opportunity to win.
Then, as the team went through their motions on the court, came the call.
“I heard a little bit about the tournament might be postponed,” Rice said. While the team practiced, Benedict Sports Information Director Dennis Switzer called the coach.
“He told me they (the NCAA) were thinking about cancelling,” Rice said. “We were practicing then, so I said when you find out, call me back. So I went back out there to practice and five minutes later Dennis called again and said it’s over with.”
What prompted the call was NCAA President Mark Emmert and the Board of Governors canceling the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. With those cancellations went the Division 2 and Division 3 tournaments.
But while that statement had been made public, and while Rice knew the game and the tournament were off, his team was still on the floor, perfecting passes, making shots, getting accustomed to the floor they would never play on.
Instead of breaking the news to the team right then, Rice began talking to them about life during the course of the practice, about how much he cared about their health and what they’ve done for the Benedict program.
“Sometimes you never know, you might not get a chance to see them anymore,” Rice said. “I still didn’t tell them, but I let them enjoy the moment together.”
When the Tigers wrapped up their practice, Rice said he got to take pictures.
“I never take pictures, so I guess they knew that something was going on,” he said. “My eyes were watering up, but I was holding back at that time.”
Just before he got the team in a practice-breaking circle, Rice said he told each player how much they were appreciated. And then he broke the news.
“The look on their faces, you can see that hard work. I can read it,” Rice said. “They put in a lot of work up until that point to win a championship. I just let them know how much I cared about them, and then I let them down easy. It wasn’t that hard.”
Bey said the team took it hard, but understood.
“It was disappointing, but we knew that it was done for our safety,” Bey said. “We understood the reasoning behind it, but we worked hard all season and it was taken away from us.”
At that point, the 2019-20 Tigers, who had set four team records in a 27-3 season, were on the court for the last time.
Rice considered that the best way of making the moment lighter was food. He brought the team to midcourt and told them that the first person to make a shot from half court would decide where the team eats that evening.
Freshman guard Hanna Stull was the second Tiger to take the midcourt line and drained the shot. She suggested Longhorns, and from what Rice observed, the team enjoyed themselves and had a special time in getting over the heaviness of being ready to play for it all, but not being able to.
The next day the team boarded the bus and rode back to Columbia, where they pulled onto a campus closed for spring break and soon to be closed indefinitely because of the latest Coronavirus closings.
Bey said a few Benedict staff and alumni greeted the bus, but the arrival was otherwise quiet.
Rice, who drove up for the tournament intending to watch other teams in the tournament, stayed behind, drove to Walker Arena on the Lee University campus, parked, and reflected.
“I was so depressed,” he said. “I sat out there in the parking lot, and just watched. Those kids had opportunities. How special this team was!”
By the time Rice got back to Columbia, the team was off on its own. The Tigers were now individual students who were intent on leaving the campus for their homes. From that point, Rice turned toward 2020-21.
“I’m super excited for next season,” he said, in the midst of trying to schedule exhibition games with some division one schools-with the top-ranked University of South Carolina women, who were themselves hurt with the play stoppage.
“I’ve been trying to call around for some D1s for an exhibition game, trying to get that big one-you know what I’m talking about,” he said of the Gamecocks, who were gunning for their second Division I national title before the Division 1 tournament was cancelled.
“We’ve got every last one of those young ladies coming back,” he said. “I hope they remain disciplined and healthy, that they’re working on their game, doing their schoolwork. I’ve got to rely on them to go out there and prove on a national level, on an elite level, that we can play.”
That won’t be any problem for Bey, a rising senior.
“Definitely. This is my opportunity now,” Bey said about the coming season. “I’m going to be a senior and it’s all or nothing. It will be my last year at Benedict, and I want to make a statement and have us win it all.”