PORTSMOUTH — Everyone has had his or her respective experiences with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and its’ effects on sports in the immediate future — including the Shawnee State University women’s basketball team.
The Bears — which held a 29-4 record after their Mid-South Conference Tournament Championship, the program’s third-best record in coach Jeff Nickel’s seven-year tenure — found out last Wednesday evening that they would be the No. 2 overall seed in the upcoming NAIA National Tournament.
Hours prior, several state governments (Ohio included) had recommended all sporting events be played with limited crowds of 100 or fewer people in attempt to halt the potential spread of the coronavirus.
Less than 24 hours after finding out they would be facing No. 7-seed William Woods in their opening round of this year’s single-elimination tournament, the Bears’ postseason opportunity was no more when they found out the NAIA — in addition to much of the sporting world’s decision to postpone or cancel their upcoming events — had in fact canceled their winner-take-all event.
Nickel found out just minutes prior to a conference call with the 31 other coaches who had received bids to participate in the tournament.
“About 12:55 p.m., I got an email, the tweets started to come in after that,” said Nickel. “It all kind of happened really quick, tried to gather our student-athletes to the gym as soon as we could, to notify them.”
Although they eventually did hours after they made the same decision, the NCAA had not yet canceled their college basketball tournament by the time the NAIA did Thursday afternoon. This, along with the possibility of playing the games with no fans, was what Nickel and the Bears had ultimately hoped would be the decision, rather than the one that was made.
No fans but games seemed like a much more enticing idea than no games, just ask the whole of America. Rather, the larger public health concern overtook what potential plans these governing bodies were hoping towards.
“It definitely was in the back of our head, whether a lot of us want to admit that or not, I think it was a definite fear,” Nickel said of the cancellation. “But as you start to look around the country, as more people started to get diagnosed with this, it started becoming more of a reality.”
Bad timing or a by-product of taking the over-precautions necessary aside, no one can deny the level of basketball Shawnee State was playing before its season met its untimely demise.
If the postseason had played out, there’s no doubt the Bears were a threat in every matchup which would have come before them.
Entering the national tournament, the Bears were winners of seven-straight with their last loss occuring on Feb. 8 in an 84-71 home decision to No. 14-ranked MSC foe Lindsey Wilson.
During its seven-game winning streak to end the season, Shawnee State defeated its opponents by an average margin of victory of 13.9 points per game, including its 81-72 win over Thomas More to claim the program’s fifth Mid-South Conference tournament championship in six seasons.
“We were playing really good basketball,” Nickel said of his team’s play to end the season. “We felt like we had a path in our bracket. We had played William Woods in the past, had seen some of their personnel from a few years earlier. Had a few familiar foes in our bracket with Westmont and Talledega. Watching as much basketball as I do, I was familiar with the other teams we had in our bracket. I felt like we had a really good chance to get to the Final Four. Once you get that far it’s hard to look ahead… Upsets happen every year so it’s hard to predict your path, but I liked what we had.”
In their run to claim their fifth Mid-South Conference tournament title in Nickel’s seven seasons, the Bears knocked off three ranked opponents, including their nine-point win over the Saints in last Monday’s championship game.
“We played three opponents that played three different styles of basketball, and we won those three games in three different ways,” said Nickel, of his team’s conference tournament run. “I was really impressed with this group and how much they improved throughout the season. Disappointed that our run came to an end, but I’m always going to remember how they played, how they carried themselves, on and off the court. I’m very, very proud of them.”
Not a fan of losing, Shawnee State’s women’s program has compiled a 190-50 record during Nickel’s seven seasons — an astounding figure when considering Robin Hagen-Smith’s NAIA-record 638 wins during her 30 seasons at the time of her retirement. Nickel credits those around him and those that work behind the scenes for the level of continued success the Bears have experienced in his tenure.
“We work really hard, I’m blessed to have had a lot of really good players, a lot of talented assistant coaches,” Nickel said. “A lot of people that put in the work to keep this program at the elite level in NAIA. I’m just proud of everyone that’s been apart of this program.”
Shawnee State will depart two seniors from this season’s 29-4 campaign — in Sydney King and Bailey Cummins.
King, a transfer from the University of West Alabama, contributed from day-one after setting foot on SSU’s campus. After appearing in 29 and starting in three games in what would be her junior season, King started in 28 of 29 games for Shawnee State in the 2019-20 season — averaging 7.5 points per game and grabbing 6.1 rebounds per game, all while having a knack for making big plays when needed, Nickel said.
“She’s (King) been a great kid, someone who has been around the office a lot, comes and talks to our coaches,” Nickel said. “She’s a really good player. Can score when you need her to score, can get a lot of rebounds and make a lot of big plays when you need them made. I think that’s what I’ll always remember about Sydney, she had a knack of always stepping up and giving us what we needed, when we needed it.”
Cummins, the Brooksville, Ky. native, graduates with a resume that is nearly second-to-none.
Starting a school-record 135 games during her Shawnee State career, Cummins leaves behind a legacy that includes the 2019-20 Mid-South Conference Player of the Year, fourth all-time in scoring and first all-time in assists at SSU, in addition to being named an All-American in each of her final three seasons as a Bear.
“Bailey’s an all-time great,” Nickel said, of his point guard. “I’ve been blessed to coach some really good point guards here, and Bailey’s right up there with all of them. I was really impressed with how she improved and how hard she worked on her game from her junior year to her senior year. Her numbers and improvement speak for itself. I was really looking forward to watching Bailey play in the national tournament because she’s been on a tear for the last six weeks, playing great basketball.”
While the graduation losses are indeed substantial, 11 of the 13 Bears returning from this year’s 29-4 season have Nickel and his staff excited for what’s to come regarding SSU women’s basketball and some of the changes and additions we might expect to see on their team.
“We’ve got a lot of our team returning, kind of back to the way it always is,” Nickel said. “The girls will get after it in the weight room, strength and conditioning. We’ll sit down with them in their individual meetings and let them know from there the things they need to continue to improve and continue to enhance. We’re still finalizing a few of our last spots for recruiting, as we start making those decisions that’s going to change the dynamic of our team.”
For more information on SSU Bears Athletics, visit www.ssubears.com or visit the Twitter and Facebook pages at https://twitter.com/SSUBears and https://www.facebook.com/SSUBears. For more information on how to join the SSU Bear Club, visit https://givetossu.com/bear-club.
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