PHOENIX – Several members of Arizona State’s women’s basketball team were getting treatment in a training room at Weatherup Center in Tempe on March 12, knowing that in just four days the entire team would be watching ESPN’s Women’s NCAA Tournament Selection Special together.
The Sun Devils were fresh off of a disappointing first-round exit at the Pac-12 Tournament, but the team was gearing up for a “redemption run,” as freshman Eboni Walker put it and ESPN’s Charlie Creme projected the Sun Devils as a No. 7 seed despite the Pac-12 loss.
Just the night before the NBA had announced it was postponing games because of the COVID-19 outbreak, and speculation about the fate of the NCAA Tournament was rampant.
“We heard a lot about other stuff getting canceled and we were just hoping it wouldn’t be our tournament,” ASU forward Ja’Tavia Tapley said.
As a senior, the tournament was supposed to be Tapley’s final chance to shine in a Sun Devil uniform before she set her sights on professional basketball.
Then Tapley saw a social media post that she knew had ended her college career.
The NCAA announced that it was canceling the tournament because of the coronavirus outbreak. The news soon moved across televisions in the training room as the stunned players looked on.
“My initial reaction was, like, it is probably a made-up tweet,” said ASU freshman Sydnei Caldwell. “When it hit me, I was in shock.”
The reality quickly settled in for Walker.
“We don’t play again. We don’t practice. It’s all over, and we weren’t ready for it to be over, especially after the (Pac-12) tournament,” she said. “No, it can’t be over. We’re not done.”
It was true. For the 2019-20 season, the Sun Devils and every other team were done.
Nine of the 13 players on the ASU roster had experienced an NCAA tournament. Caldwell, Walker and Sara Bejedi, who has since announced that she is transferring to Florida State, were freshmen with more opportunities ahead.
But after her junior season, Tapley transferred from Southern California, where the Trojans failed to reach the NCAA Tournament during her time there. This was her final chance.
“It was a sad moment for me because this was a team that accepted me, and going to the national tournament with them was going to be awesome,” Tapley said. “We were well rested and ready. That really hurt.”
After the announcement was made, the team came together in a meeting room at Weatherup. The atmosphere was heavy. There were few words as the Sun Devils waited for coach Charli Turner Thorne to address the players.
“It was unlike any meeting,” Walker said. “The silence in there, we were all looking at Charli, and we were all surprised. She didn’t have all the information to help lead us. She looked at us like, ‘I don’t know what to tell you.’ We were all shook.”
After that emotional day, the players went their separate ways. ASU, like other colleges around the country, transitioned to an online university.
Tapley went back to her home in Jacksonville, Florida, where she is ready to move forward.
She has aspired to play professionally since her AAU ball days growing up in Florida.
While she might not be ready for the WNBA, there are professional women’s basketball leagues all over the globe. Tapley is prepared to go wherever necessary to continue playing.
However, teams that aren’t playing and don’t have a timetable for their return are not in any hurry to sign players.
“I know I’ll still be able to go overseas, but because of things happening now and most (teams) being overseas, there’s no answer,” Tapley said. “I’m still set to go. But I’m just waiting for this to die down, and it’s not a problem.”
Until then, she has to be creative with her training. Florida is on lockdown, too, so the gym and the local parks near her are closed.
Tapley fills her time running around her neighborhood, using a rowing machine in her house, or doing core and cardio workouts in her living room or outside.
But something is missing.
“It’s hard to find a hoop, sadly,” Tapley said.
In her final game as a Sun Devil, Tapley scored 13 points and grabbed six rebounds in the loss to California in the Pac-12 tournament.
The tenacious scorer had no way then to know that her ASU career would end as swiftly as a tweet can upload. But it’s a year she’ll always appreciate.
She said the highlights were, “How much my team and coaching staff trusted me, getting my confidence back and having fun out there. I felt welcome. We turned into a family, and I felt the love around me.”
Despite the difficulties Tapley and other athletes have endured over the past month, she believes her time at ASU has helped her get closer to her dream of becoming a pro.
For now, all she can do is prepare for what lies ahead, and lament what might have been in her final college season.