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Big East cancels men's basketball tournament at halftime of St. John's-Creighton

A few basketball fans watch as Creighton takes

A few basketball fans watch as Creighton takes on St. John's in an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Big East Conference tournament, Thursday, March 12, 2020, at Madison Square Garden in New York. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

With the St. John’s-Creighton quarterfinal game at halftime Thursday, the Big East halted its men’s basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden on Thursday because of the coronavirus pandemic and will not play the remainder of its games.

Earlier Thursday, Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said she was not privy to discussions at the NCAA about whether it would play its championship tournament but added, “My prediction is if things escalate in this country, as we’ve seen in other parts of the world, I suspect it’s going to be very difficult for them to hold on to the NCAA Tournament as planned.”

She was right. Shortly after that, the NCAA announced it had canceled this year’s NCAA Tournament for men and women.

On Wednesday, the NBA suspended its season indefinitely because it deemed that even playing games in empty arenas was not in the best interests of public health.

Even as a number of other high-profile conferences were canceling their men’s basketball tournaments — including the Big Ten, SEC, American, ACC, Pac-12 and Atlantic 10 in Brooklyn — the Big East tipped off the first of its four quarterfinal games, featuring St. John’s against top-seeded and seventh-ranked Creighton.

St. John’s led 38-35 at halftime when the conference went public with a statement canceling the tourney.

The Big East was aware that other conferences were canceling but believed consulting New York City officials about their stance on public gatherings was necessary.

“Once we got this news about the other conferences, I felt it important to confer with the city, and that happened,” Ackerman said. “The city hasn’t made its announcement yet, but it will.”

So the game tipped off and a final decision was made among the 10 conference member schools soon after. Ackerman said the Big East let the first half finish because “we didn’t feel like we needed a dramatic, pull-the-players-off-the-court-in-the-middle-of-the-game gesture. But that said, we didn’t believe it made sense to pull them out after halftime.

“We just thought under the circumstances, the least disruptive gesture for the student-athletes who are on the floor — because this is a trauma for them, too, I suspect.”

“This is a situation that I have never experienced before and I know our team has never experienced it,” Red Storm coach Mike Anderson said in a statement. “Our guys are very disappointed. We feel like we’ve been playing some of our better basketball, but at the same time, this is bigger than basketball with this coronavirus.

“This has a worldwide effect and that’s a game of life. I’m glad to see our leadership made the decision to cancel the tournament. Again, we were disappointed, but at the same time, it’s the right thing to do. I’m just proud of our guys, the fans that came out and supported us.”

In the aftermath of the NBA’s decision Wednesday night, the NCAA and a number of its member conferences had not come to the same conclusion immediately.

Asked why, Ackerman said, “At the time we heard that directive, the NCAA was not making any determinations, other than restricted attendance [at its tournament games], so we were following their lead” as well as advice from consultations with city officials.

“I think the NBA decision was in part driven by a positive coronavirus test as well by an athlete, which we don’t have in the Big East,” she said. “So they were operating on a slightly different fact set.”

If the NCAA were to hold its championship tournament, there would be a lot of questions about how the field would be selected. Each conference tournament champion receives an automatic bid for one of the 68 spots. When the Ivy League canceled its postseason tournament, it declared that regular-season champion Yale would be its representative.

Before the cancellations, Ackerman said she has no medical training, but from watching the developments of the last week, “it just seems like this trajectory is only intensifying, and so I suspect it’s going to be very difficult to do it [hold the NCAA Tournament].”

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