A historic season in Bradley men’s and women’s basketball has come to a grinding hault.
On Thursday afternoon, the NCAA announced that it has canceled the entirety of the organization’s remaining winter and spring championships – including the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments – on the account of the health risk of the COVID-19 virus.
Bradley men’s basketball clinched an at-large bid to the tournament on Sunday afternoon by defeating Valparaiso 80-66 in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game. It was the Braves’ second consecutive championship, and the team was slated to make back-to-back appearances in March Madness for the first time since the 1954 and 1955 seasons.
“We’re all very sad,” men’s basketball head coach Brian Wardle said. “But we understand the situation and we’re empathetic to it, but also, it’s out of our control … But, not many teams get to end the season cutting the nets down and holding up trophies, and we were able to do that.”
The women’s program was heading into the postseason after the best regular season in program history. Bradley finished the season with 22 overall wins and 13 wins in MVC play – both of which set school records. The team appeared to be in the hunt for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and would’ve likely claimed a spot in the WNIT had they not made the big dance. It finished ranked 50th in RPI nationally.
The Braves were set to take the floor in the “Hoops in the Heartland” conference tournament as the No. 3 seed versus Valparaiso on Friday at 8:30 p.m. The team was set to depart for Moline today at 11:30 a.m
Instead of hopping on the bus, head coach Andrea Gorski had to break the news to the team that the MVC tournament was canceled and the season was over.
“I wanted to make sure I talked to them before it got out on social media, and it was devastating,” Gorski said. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a coach.”
After a record season for Gorski’s Braves, the squad was set on making more history but instead fell victim to a historic cancellation.
“We had a WNIT berth, which women’s basketball has never even done that at Bradley,” Gorski said. “That and the chance to play for the NCAA Tournament, you know, that was really important to us, to really make history in that in the postseason realm.”
When the Bradley men clinched their NCAA Tournament berth on Sunday in St. Louis, there was little to no talk of cancellations of events. Attention was turned to planning for Selection Sunday and where the team would be seeded. Now, there is no next game.
“It’s funny, you tell your guys ‘seize the moment, make the most of every opportunity, you don’t know when that opportunity is going to be presented again,’” Wardle said. “It’s life lessons here. I think this year will always be remembered as, for Bradley basketball, as a special year, but obviously as a year [with] no NCAA Tournament.”
One of the toughest parts for both teams is the fact that the squads have a combined six seniors that have played their last games in a Braves uniform.
“It’s hard for seniors when you don’t really know that you could be playing your last game,” Gorski said. “It’s heartbreaking, but life’s tough sometimes and life’s not fair sometimes.”
Despite the abrupt end to their careers, Darrell Brown, Nate Kennell, Koch Bar, Chelsea Brackmann, Amber Bozeman and Ryan Wilkins all saw marked improvements in their programs in their four-year careers.
While neither coach could foresee the events of the last five days, both are keeping things in perspective moving forward in a time of national crisis.
“You just really, at this point, pray for our country and the health and well-being of our citizens,” Gorski said. “That is first and foremost.”
“I preach control what you can control all the time,” Wardle said. “This is out of our control, and we understand that. We’re not experts on the situation, but we obviously trust and are empathetic towards what everybody is trying to accomplish right now.”
Prior to the season in November, Wardle made it a point that a focus of the season was to enjoy the journey. After the Braves appeared to be headed to the national stage, they will have to jostle with a journey abruptly curtailed.
“The journey is everything, it’s not the destination,” Wardle said. “Obviously, this is a moment where we’re probably all disappointed and sad, but there’s a reason for it. We may not know it now, but I believe there’s always a reason for everything and we’ll learn more and more of what that is, for sure.”