Lost in the Distance

Just like that, social distancing closed down the Big Sky Conference and the UNC men’s basketball team’s dreams of playing at the NCAA Tournament. But the shutdown didn’t diminish the hard work and outstanding season that got them so close to the dance.

March is the time of year for Cinderellas and dancing, but this year the clock struck midnight before the ball even started.

Senior Jonah Radebaugh had transformed himself from a walk-on into one of the best players in the Big Sky Conference, and the UNC men’s basketball team entered the conference tournament in Boise, set for March 9–14, looking to clinch the automatic bid to the next week’s NCAA Tournament. And while talk about COVID-19 continued to stir up in the news, the Bears had their eyes on the prize.

They were going through their normal routine of having a practice that Wednesday the 11th, and shootaround on Thursday morning in preparation for that night’s game in Boise, Idaho.

“We were fully prepared to play in the Big Sky Tournament. Since the tournament had already started, we thought they wouldn’t stop it and would let us play through it,” Radebaugh said. “We had practice on Wednesday, March 11, and a shootaround Thursday morning thinking at worst we might not be playing with fans in the stands.”

At shootaround, news started to break, fast and furiously, with one conference tournament after the other canceling, but still nothing from the Big Sky.

“We were at breakfast when Coach Linder came into the room and told us they had canceled the whole thing. It was just shocking,” Radebaugh said. “It was only two or three more days before the tournament was over. It was really shocking and disappointing for a lot of us. I was at a loss for words.”

In just a snap of your fingers that one shining moment and dreams of dancing in the NCAA Tournament and college careers were over.

No one would blame Radebaugh or any other student-athlete for being upset about seeing their hard work and dreams go away just like that. Instead, Radebaugh looked at it in a different way.

“I looked at the whole situation from a big picture. We had a great season and had put ourselves in a good spot to win the tournament and make the NCAA Tournament. That was disappointing, but there was not a lot I could do about it. At the end of the day, you had to respect the decisions that were made and not be mad at those who made it.”

All of this was true. The Bears had won 20-plus games for their third straight season, had the Defensive MVP (Radebaugh) and Sixth Man of the Year (Kai Edwards) on the team, and finished just a game out of first place in the regular season.

For the season, Radebaugh averaged 16.5 points, 6.5 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game helping UNC go 22-9 on the year and 15-5 in the Big Sky for a second place finish. His stellar senior season earned him a Big Sky-record third Defensive Player of the Year honor and unanimous first team All-Big Sky selection. He also broke the program’s record for single-season assists and ended up in the top 10 for career points, rebounds, assists, steals and made 3-pointers. He’s one of three Big Sky members on the NABC All-District 6 team.

The abrupt end to the season meant life didn’t just change from an athletic standpoint for Radebaugh, but academically too. A Sports and Exercise Science major with an emphasis in teaching, he had to learn how to teach in a virtual world.

“When I got to the high school that I am student-teaching at, they had already started that process of virtual teaching, so I just try and help with that. I have put together brain breaks for the kids so they are not just sitting at the computer or in front of a screen all day but staying active. They can do these brain breaks with the whole family to keep everyone active. I want to be there to help the students and keep them active.”

Radebaugh continues to prepare for life as a professional basketball player, as well.

“I took some time off once the season was officially over like I usually have,” he said. “Now I’m doing push-ups and sit-ups at the house and following workout videos online. When I can, I’ll go to a gym and work out and lift weights. I also go to the basketball courts at the apartments where I live just to keep a feel for the game and work on it on the outdoor hoops.”

Keeping both himself and the students at the high school where he’s student-teaching active has brought him a perspective he’ll never forget about these times and all that has happened.

“I learned to take everything you have and never take something for granted. You never know when something could be taken from you,” he says.

–By Ryan Pfeiffer