No one was leaving Bankers Life Fieldhouse early on Wednesday night.
Never mind that the outcome was well in hand. And traffic in Downtown Indianapolis was going to be just as much of a nightmare leaving as it was driving in. Still, no one was eager to try and beat it.
Online, news was breaking at breakneck speed. Cancellations, suspensions, infections. Escapes and entertainment for some and livelihoods for others were changing by the minute. It was fair to wonder if it would have an effect on the play on the court.
Less than two minutes into the first of two opening round games in the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament, Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino put that curiosity to rest.
“God f***ing d*mmit we can’t run a f*cking play!” He yelled to his bench seconds before the Gophers missed a shot.
From that moment on, it was clear that Wednesday night would be like any other Wednesday night in the Big Ten Tournament, but everything after the final buzzer would be uncharted territory.
And that’s how it played out. Minnesota and Northwestern played a close game for a half before the Gophers hit nine 3-pointers in the second half to win comfortably. Most of the players on the bench were standing and cheering like they would for any other big performance this time of year.
None of them seemed to worry about it potentially being their last game of the season.
Shortly after the conclusion of game one, the crowd came to life. The team that most of the fans that filled up the lower two levels of the arena were here for, Indiana, had taken the court.
It was poetic that Indiana was the last team to play. The Hoosier State is one of several where basketball is more than just a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. Everyone there knew it would be the last time they could watch the Hoosiers play in person this year.
That was forgotten at tip-off. To the fans, Indiana still needed to win the game to solidify its spot in the NCAA Tournament. To Nebraska, it was a chance to move on from a nightmare 7-24 regular season.
As the Huskers jumped out to a 33-27 lead in the first half, nervous energy spread through the Fieldhouse just like it did when Nebraska took Indiana to overtime in Bloomington back in December.
Nebraska was once again playing with effort. Senior guard Haanif Cheatham soaked up every moment of his final collegiate game and players like junior forward Thorir Thorbjarnarson played so hard they could barely catch their breath during timeouts.
The Huskers had put the proverbial pedal to the floorboard, going full speed until the tank hit empty. 14 minutes into Wednesday’s game, the tank hit empty.
A 13-1 run to end the half gave Indiana a comfortable lead. It ballooned to 21 points early in the second half. News had spread fast that the NBA suspended its season. The crowd stayed engaged, cheering throughout Indiana’s barrage of big plays and once again tensing up when Nebraska cut the deficit to 10 with eight minutes left.
By that point, television cameras had picked up on Fred Hoiberg sweating and looking visibly ill. The announcers said that he told them earlier in the day that he was not feeling well.
By the final media timeout of a torturous season that featured a player leaving the team, three more serving suspensions, the navigation of the tragic death of Kobe Bryant and a program-record loss total, Hoiberg had left the court and was on his way to the hospital for testing.
Hardly anyone in the arena noticed Hoiberg’s departure. Instead, several unique-to-March storylines were unfolding on the court.
The Hoosiers weathered Nebraska’s comeback attempt and were clearly going to win. With no uncertainty in the result, the crowd roared to life like never before. And it was because of Indiana’s opponent, nonetheless.
With Hoiberg gone, assistant coach Doc Sadler became the interim head coach. Eight March’s ago, he was in tears as he spoke to the media after being relieved of his head coaching duties by the university. Now, for five minutes, he was back in a familiar spot.
But Sadler isn’t what brought the crowd to its feet for the final four minutes of the game. His first two substitutions did.
The addition of backup quarterback Noah Vedral and offensive lineman Brant Banks was supposed to be the story of day one of the tournament. While that faded fast from the newswire, the fans loved every moment the two had on the floor.
Banks, a 6-foot-7, 300 lb forward with hair past his shoulders held together by a headband, was particularly adorned by the crowd. Years from now, his and Vedral’s presence in this game will still be talked about by fans, even if neither scored a point.
As the crowd cheered hard for the walk-ons, a series of goodbyes unfolded on Nebraska’s bench. One of the first was Cheatham, who sacrificed competing for a postseason championship to help set the foundation of a completely new team. Even with 25 losses, he called transferring to Nebraska the best decision of his life.
Next was junior guard Jervay Green. Green originally committed to former head coach Tim Miles, but re-upped his commitment after considering his options following Hoiberg’s hiring. It wouldn’t be surprising if he second-guessed that decision after he was suspended for two games in December and removed from the rotation in January.
Instead, he fought his way back into the rotation and started Wednesday night’s game, scoring 15 points and grabbing eight rebounds.
As he exited for the final time this season, he received a fist bump from Sadler before fellow assistant coach Armon Gates stood up and gave him a hug. 11 months ago, it was Gates that convinced Green to stick with Nebraska.
As the final horn sounded, Nebraska’s assistants gave thumbs up signals to Indiana’s bench, meaning that there wouldn’t be any handshakes. By that point, Green was already in the crowd, grinning while posing for pictures with a young fan that was excited to meet him. Meanwhile, Hoiberg was already leaving the arena.
The reality and gravity of the situation set in immediately.
No players or coaches from Nebraska could speak to the media. None were even allowed to leave the locker room because of Hoiberg’s potential illness. In the bowels of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, there was mass confusion.
Slowly, the perimeter concourse was being closed off to non-essential personnel. The Hoosiers quickly left the arena after the game. Some security members were unsure of the protocol, sending media directly to the tunnel next to Nebraska’s locker room instead of back to the concourse.
In the roped off tunnel, a table was set up with Nebraska’s food. Authorized staff brought the postgame meals into the quarantined locker room. Only several members of Nebraska’s staff were allowed outside of it.
Eventually, Nebraska’s team doctor was requested to meet with team officials. Media was forced to leave their working spots on the court and move to the workroom adjacent to the arena. Doors and gates were closed, and the team was cleared to leave.
Shortly after, Hoiberg was diagnosed with Influenza A. The present disaster was averted, but the cancellation of the rest of the college basketball season was imminent.
One year ago, I can recall racing around the United Center tunnels after Nebraska’s loss to Wisconsin. The families of Nebraska’s coaches were visibly upset after it was revealed that the university would be making a statement about Miles’s future.
On that day, It hit me hard about how our trivial entertainment is what supports so many families. But at the same time back in Nebraska, livelihoods and communities were being changed by severe flooding.
Seeing pictures of entire towns being flooded put sports into perspective for me. The stories from small towns across the state were heartbreaking and heroic. It’s something I’ve thought about often this week as well.
The people of Nebraska suffered a great deal of heartbreak last year and are still rebuilding. Their resolve is something we can all lean on during times of stress and uncertainty, as well as when we need perspective.
No matter what happens in the upcoming weeks, life will be different for at least a little while. It’s going to be important for us to support each other as everyday life changes. It’s also going to be important for us to keep this in perspective about how much we take for granted.
Thursday was an unbelievably hard day for many people that I may never forget. But I’ll also always remember those four hours of Wednesday night, that last escape where March went mad and all was normal.