Justice Kithcart gets off the bus in front of the Gaines Center after an eight-hour trip from Indiana (Pa.) on Friday.

It was a somber moment at best.

The Winston-Salem State Rams arrived back on campus after a whirlwind 60-hour jaunt to Pennsylvania and back for what was supposed to be the NCAA Division II Tournament.

It wasn’t until Thursday night at about 6 p.m. when the NCAA pulled the plug on the tournament because of the novel coronavirus. So the first-round game at Indiana (Pa.) wasn’t played and the Rams turned around and came home on Friday.

Standing there waiting for the bus to parked just outside of Gaines Center I was a lone wolf as I asked questions to the players and coaches. A lot of my questions were about the foundation that was set for this historic team and how the future looks very bright.

Coach Cleo Hill Jr.’s bunch that won the CIAA Tournament took the news in stride about the canceled tournament because like everybody else they watched ESPN and other stations detailing the cancellations.

The reality is the Rams’ season ends at 19-10 and the CIAA championship, the school’s first in eight years, never looked so good.

“It does feel a little better knowing we are the CIAA champs and we earned it,” said Justice Kithcart, a junior who will be back next season.

Said Hill: “Coming home to this (as he pointed to the Big House Gaines CIAA championship trophy) makes all of what we went through over the last three days a little easier.”

Hill said that it was tough at first when Etienne Thomas, the school’s athletics director, told him that the games were off. But Hill said the players took the news well even though they were hoping to play.

“We wanted to play, no doubt,” said senior Mason Harrell, one of the four seniors who played their final college game in Charlotte when they beat Fayetteville State 63-62 on Feb. 29. “But we understand what’s going on in the country and it’s about more than basketball.”

The maturity that Harrell showed in his answer is as good of an indication as any as to why this Rams’ team will go down as one of the best in school history. They played team ball throughout and all got along well, which is all Hill and his assistant coaches could ask for.

“I’m proud of these guys,” Hill said. “I think the biggest thing for me was the grit they showed. They never gave up, and that’s a big thing with me.”

As the players filed off the bus they talked about getting home to their families.

“We just all want to get home and see our families and make sure everybody is OK,” Colon said. “It’s been a good ride and this season was something I’ll never forget. But it’s over now.”

Hill admitted he was tired from the long trip and was looking forward to getting home to see his wife and two children.

I thanked him for all his time this season and as he stood up from behind his desk at his office we gave each other elbow bumps. 

Yes, the basketball season was over.


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