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Sports

'Just Being Versatile': How UNC Basketball Teams Navigate The Pandemic, On And Off The Court

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UNC Bears
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The University of Northern Colorado Women's Basketball team plays against Wyoming on Dec. 20, 2020.

It’s no secret that the coronavirus has stopped many college sports in their tracks, cancelling games for weeks at a time, or even ending entire seasons prematurely. The University of Northern Colorado in Greeley is no exception. Late last month, a COVID outbreak on the men’s basketball team brought the season to a halt, and just this past Monday, the team played their first game after a 24-day hiatus.

KUNC’s Alana Schreiber talked with Alisa Wiggins, who plays for the UNC women’s team, about how COVID forced the team to readjust nearly everything. She also talked to Steve Smiley, the head coach for men’s basketball, about the team's recent return to the court.

Interview Highlights:
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alana Schreiber: A few weeks ago, around the time that you and many other players were diagnosed with COVID-19, you tweeted that "safety will always be a first for our team." How has the UNC men's basketball team prioritized health and safety while engaging in a high-contact indoor sport?

Steve Smiley: We're still, and even well before the outbreak, masking up in practice — that's players, coaches our entire bubble. Keeping our bubble pretty small. We only have 23 to 25 people, which is players, coaches, trainers, managers. Their schools did a great job of managing that, not rushing people back, but just doing things the right way. And then just from the NCAA, doing mandatory testing at least three times per week.

During the COVID outbreak, the Bears had to cancel nine games over the course of 24 days. This past Monday, the UNC Bears finally got back on the court. How did players readjust and how did the game go?

You know, this 24-day break, as we come back, we're still not back to full speed. We still have five players that are not cleared to play basketball right now for a variety of reasons. We had multiple times where players had to play different positions, putting guys into different spots. So it was not always pretty. And there were times where we kind of looked a little bit lost, but it was very encouraging how our guys adapted to that.

So having the game day experience again all the way to a game day practice, pre-game meal, just all those routines and habits that you lose when you're out for 24 days, it's vitally important.

There's a lot of debate going on right now that college sports shouldn't be a priority during the pandemic and that if we're going to have students return to campus, the focus should be on returning to the classroom. What do you say to the adversaries? Why is it so important to have college sports in this moment?

You know when you lose out on being able to do what you love, there's the mental health side of it as well. And whether it's college, whether it's pro, whether it's youth, I do think if everything continues to get shut down, it really is a struggle for what people love to do. And that's not just sport-based, that's everything-based.

If we can't make it safe enough, we probably shouldn’t be doing it, but in our world, I feel great about the fact that all the testing, all the protocols have really made this, for the most part, safe as can be.

I understand that the NCAA issued something called a zero year as an opportunity for some athletes to get more time playing their college sport. Can you explain the zero year a bit more, why it was introduced and who it's for?

What the NCAA did, they came out and said, "Okay, everyone's granted an extra year of eligibility.” So it gives those athletes the comfort to know that, okay, even if we don't have a full season, I'm not losing one of my four years of being able to play college. And from an academic standpoint, you've got five years to get a four-year degree, maybe get into your masters. So I think it's a great thing.

One of those players taking a zero year is Alisa Wiggins, the point guard transferred to UNC to play on the women's basketball team in late 2020 and began her first season as a Bear in the middle of the pandemic. While the women's team hasn't faced as many game cancelations as the men's, they've had to make some major adjustment in order to eke out a season.

Alisa Wiggins: The theme of the season was being versatile, and everybody had to learn pretty much every position and be able to step into a spot at any given moment. It's been really interesting, you know, not knowing where you're going to play each game, your natural position might not be where we need you. So that's just been one of the great things of the season.

I understand that earlier this season, the team played a game with just six available athletes. Alisa, can you tell me a bit about that experience?

Yeah, so that game was at Idaho State. We had a bunch of girls knocked out due to COVID protocol, and we traveled with seven initially, and one of our players got injured at the first game, so we only had six available. And for that game, we just knew that everybody had to step up. And it was really a collective effort to see if we could try to pull it out against one of the best teams in the conference. We kept it a close game and only lost by 10, but it was definitely a different experience for most of us to be able to play 40 minutes back-to-back. And I think that's what we were most proud of.

You transferred to UNC in the middle of a pandemic. What was that like?

Yeah, it was definitely challenging. We couldn't really interact with many people outside of our bubble. So just to be able to come here into a new environment and not really have a chance to branch out to study groups and just finding your niche. But with the team, it was able to bring very close relationships between the players. We were able to just have a lot of team bonding and team exercises. So that's been one of the benefits out of this whole experience.

And lastly, I understand that you're going to be taking a zero year. Why did you make that decision and why do you think that the zero year is an important option for players like you?

Well, for me personally, it was the best decision as far as my academics. I'm going to pursue a master's degree in coaching here at UNC. This year was an experience, but it was really different experience. It wasn't a traditional season for a lot of players. We just kind of want that back to normalcy. But the academics really drive my decision and being able to do that and play at the same time was just something that I wouldn't be able to get anywhere else.

A shorter version of this conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Feb. 24. You can find the full episode here.