It’s easy to put too much emphasis on how something ended. It is, after all, our final mental image of a person, a period of time or, in the case of athletics, a season and a team.
When it was announced on Tuesday the Arkansas Tech University women’s basketball team would be unable to compete in the NCAA Division II Tournament due to COVID-19 protocols, it was a gut punch for everyone associated with the program. Players, coaches, fans, support personnel, radio announcers…you name it. No one was spared.
Dave Wilbers, who completed his 14th season as ATU head women’s basketball coach, said telling the Golden Suns the news during a team meeting in their Tucker Coliseum locker room was the second-most difficult thing he’s ever done in his coaching career. The only worse occasion was informing one of his student-athletes about the passing of a family member.
When I received the news from Abby Davis, ATU interim director of athletics, my heart sank for the players who went through all the COVID-19 testing, all the conditioning, all the practices, all the road trips…every bit of it in pursuit of a berth in the NCAA Tournament. And then, less than 48 hours after they achieved that goal, it was gone in the blink of an eye.
The sense of what could have been is difficult to shake and will be again on Saturday night when Cameron University gets a shot at nationally top-ranked Lubbock Christian University in the regional semifinals instead of Arkansas Tech.
But the sun (no pun intended) rose again on Wednesday, and when it did, it was easier to look back on the entirety of the last two-plus months with perspective.
The Golden Suns finished 14-2 overall. They earned their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2018 and the 25th national tournament appearance in the 44-year history of intercollegiate women’s basketball at Arkansas Tech. Their Great American Conference Eastern Division championship is the 26th regular season league title in program history.
Three ATU women’s basketball players --- senior guard Jayana Sanders, junior guard Ashlei Lopez and sophomore guard Kaley Shipman --- were named All-GAC. Lopez was also voted GAC newcomer of the year. There’s no sixth man or woman of the year recognition in the GAC, but if there was, it would have gone to ATU redshirt freshman guard Jalei Oglesby.
That quartet spearheaded an offense that set a new Golden Suns record for points per game in a season (85.1).
When I see references to this season in the record book during the years to come, I might think first of how it ended. But I’ll also recall the milestones --- Wilbers’ 300th career win in the conference opener at UA-Monticello and watching Sanders become the 29th Golden Sun to score 1,000 career points and the sixth ATU women’s player to reach 400 career assists. It would be difficult to forget the night Nikki Metcalfe tied Cindi Patton’s seemingly untouchable 32-year old school record for blocked shots in a game (11).
I’ll also remember the 3-pointer Sanders made to defeat Harding on Jan. 11, the 3-pointer Shipman hit to force overtime at Ouachita Baptist on Feb. 12 (not to mention the 33 points Lopez scored that evening) and the 17-point, seven-rebound second half senior guard Hannah Villines had at Harding on Feb. 22, the night the Suns clinched the GAC Eastern Division title outright.
I told Coach Wilbers at the conclusion of our post-game radio interview we’d all look back on that win in Searcy and smile when the season was over. That’s exactly what I intend to do.
Thank you, Golden Suns, for another championship season.
Thank you to the ATU fans who listened on the radio or watched online. It was not lost on me how fortunate I was to attend the games during a time when so many others could not. I can’t wait to see you in person again when a new and hopefully more normal season begins.
Talk to you on the radio.
Tech Tidbits is a column written by Sam Strasner, ATU director of university relations and radio play-by-play voice for ATU football and basketball. Photos by Liz Chrisman and Jonathon Malagon.