“No, no, no way, our last game, man,” Nick Rutherford bellowed.
“I know you’re joking,” Greg Williams Jr. said.
Others shared their frustration quietly. But everybody in the St. John’s locker room was upset.
Mike Anderson had just broken the disappointing news to his players: Their season was over due to the COVID-19 pandemic, just as they seemed to be rounding into form, having won three of their last four games.
The Big East Tournament at a mostly-empty Madison Square Garden was canceled on March 12, 2020, at halftime of a quarterfinal game between St. John’s and top-seeded Creighton, following other college basketball conferences’ lead. Later in the day, the NCAA Tournament was called off, too.
“It was kind of emotional because I had some seniors on that basketball team,” Anderson said this week. “It was their last opportunity to try to get to the NCAA Tournament. I tried to pivot and make sure they understood the game of life is bigger than the game of basketball.
“It’s one of those rare moments that took place. For the rest of my life, I’ll remember it. It was like everything went on pause.”
It was a bizarre day at the Garden. The night before, St. John’s had staged a thrilling comeback against Georgetown, reeling off the game’s final 23 points in front of an announced crowd of 17,534 that was significantly smaller. It was the last time a sporting event in the New York City area had anywhere close to full capacity.
Also on March 11, the NCAA announced there would be no spectators allowed for its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The Big East later said the rest of the conference tournament would allow a limited number of fans.
There were only a few hundred people in the Garden when St. John’s and Creighton tipped off shortly after noon the following day. The other major conferences were already canceling their tournaments.
The Big East, meanwhile, was holding a board meeting nearby. Commissioner Val Ackerman was in touch with health officials from New York city and state. Ackerman said she heard at 12:20 p.m. that a ban on large gatherings of more than 500 people would be announced shortly. She quickly gathered the league’s board members together and the decision was made to cancel the tournament.
“It was surreal,” Ackerman said.
Word quickly spread. At the last media timeout, Anderson was told by an official the tournament would be canceled at halftime. St. John’s held a 38-35 lead at the break following a David Caraher basket — the final two points of the Big East’s season.
“It was a different atmosphere because we’re used to so many fans, especially it being at the Garden,” Williams said. “But we had to bring our own energy, and we already had so much energy within the team and how we wanted to go about the game. We really wanted to win that game. We really wanted to keep going on a roll.”
When Anderson walked into the locker room with a somber look across his face, forward Julian Champagnie had an idea what was coming. Anderson rarely addressed the team that way.
“He came in with a long face, saying, ‘Guys, our health is more important than basketball at this point,’ ” Champagnie recalled this week. “It was depressing. We all wanted to play and we felt we could’ve made it to the semifinals and maybe the championship.”
The team quickly packed up and boarded its bus back to Queens. Nobody knew at the time it would be the last sporting event in the city for 83 days, until Belmont Park reopened on June 3.
“I remember us winning — that’s what I remember,” Champagnie said. “I don’t want to remember the part of us getting shut down.”