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Coronavirus halted St. John's Big East quarterfinal at halftime — and the rest of the sports world, too

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

This story is part of our "From the Press Box" series, in which Newsday sportswriters share their experiences covering great performances, memorable moments and the craziest games.

I should have known the assignment would be like no other when my phone started ringing at 8 a.m. this past March 12.

I’ve been a sportswriter for about three decades in New York and have covered college basketball for nearly two, and I’ve never gotten a pregame call like the one I got from Newsday sports editor Hank Winnicki that morning, well before I usually rouse.

He had a question, one that sounded silly at the time but more prescient as everything about the coronavirus outbreak unfolded that week. Did I feel safe covering the Big East quarterfinal between seventh-ranked Creighton and St. John’s at Madison Square Garden?

Little did I know what being on the New York City subway would be like that day.

In the moments after awakening, my answer was, of course, “no problem.” But Winnicki’s question wasn’t completely out of leftfield. Yes, the deadly virus had arrived on the scene, and yes, the NBA had suspended play the night before. Then the NCAA announced that no fans would be admitted to its championship tournament. The Big East, too, would restrict attendance to 400.

But just the night before, I’d covered a blossoming Red Storm team coming on to astonishingly score the final 23 points and take down Georgetown, 75-62, before 17,534.

St. John’s getting hot on its home floor at the Garden in the Big East Conference Tournament? I’d written about this possibility for nearly two decades, and never had it happened. I did not want to miss that.

I showered and put on a suit and tie, and so much of that morning felt like any other. But everything changed when I went down the stairs into the New York City subway.

I live in Manhattan — in what I consider a vibrant part of the Upper West Side — but this was nothing ordinary.

Every person on the subway looked terrified. I wore winter gloves because that’s what I do on the subway in March, even before the coronavirus. But the faces of the people in my subway car? I won’t forget it. Each person appeared to be fearing for his or her life. People glanced at each other with uncertainty and dread.

After the anxiety of the 18-minute trip, everything at the Garden felt normal. I read the game notes from the universities. I thought about how I’d write about the possible outcomes and the restricted attendance policy for that game.

Then I went to my assigned seat near midcourt about 20 minutes before tip-off, and that's when everything envisioned in my morning wake-up call came home to roost. I logged on to Twitter. The Big Ten had canceled its tournament games. The ACC had, too. The Big 12 as well. One after another, posts went up about cancellations. I waited for one from the Big East.

The Atlantic 10 called off its noon quarterfinal at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. We’d surely be next.

Yet, there was no word about the game I was to cover at the Garden in the same city.

The game was scheduled for noon. All the other conferences had canceled their games. But with 10 minutes on the clock before tip-off, both St. John’s and Creighton were on the Garden court warming up.

When it was about time for tip-off, a game official held up two fingers — apparently for two more minutes before the start of the game. They knew the other tournaments were canceled. St. John’s radio game analyst Brandon Tierney rose from his seat in the press row near me, removed his headphones and said to me, “Rog, what are we doing here?”

And then they started to play.

St. John’s was fabulous in what turned out to be the final half of the NCAA men’s basketball season. The Red Storm led by three at the break, but then it was over . . . at halftime.

Big East commissioner Val Ackerman explained why the conference pulled the plug at that point. She spoke about the NBA shutdown, the advice she’d previously gotten from state and city officials not to cancel, and the decision — once she knew that playing out the game was fruitless — to allow the teams to finish the half.

I wrote as the press area emptied. There was nothing to stick around for. No more games. Nothing about the situation that was improving. I filed a quick piece for our website, then decided to write the full story from home and packed up my laptop.

I had thought the most terrifying moments of the day were on the ride to the Garden. But then I got on the No. 1 train and held my breath most of the way home. Covering sports won’t be the same for a while. 

New York Sports