Positive COVID-19 test, contact tracing protocols cancel Missouri Valley Conference tournament game
A positive COVID-19 test within the Northern Iowa basketball program canceled Friday night's Arch Madness quarterfinal game against No. 2 seed Drake.
The Valley officially announced the cancellation Friday night, roughly 30 minutes after Drake and UNI were scheduled to tip. The league didn't release a full statement on the decision until shortly before 8:30 p.m. ET, confirming it was a positive test in the Panthers' Tier 1 personnel — student-athletes, coaches, managers and staff — that caused the cancellation.
"Each MVC program is required to undergo daily COVID-19 testing for the week preceding and throughout Arch Madness," the league's statement read. "Beginning Wednesday (March 3), Mercy Corporate Health has partnered with the Missouri Valley Conference to conduct a nightly PCR test of each team's Tier 1 personnel at Enterprise Center. UNI's positive result was discovered as part of Thursday evening’s testing.
"For the MVC’s championship at Enterprise Center, decisions relating to the safe navigation of tournament play are ultimately made by St. Louis City’s Board of Health, which includes the implementation of contact tracing guidelines outlined by the CDC and the City of St. Louis. Utilizing the City of St. Louis guidelines, contact tracing revealed that UNI did not have enough available players to compete."
The league's statement continued with words from commissioner Doug Elgin, who said UNI relied on the Valley's COVID-19 policies "that have been in place all season and were thought to be applicable here at the tournament." However, Elgin continued, COVID-19 orders from the City of St. Louis Board of Health Department "take precedence over MVC protocols."
"None of our institutions were aware that this was in place," Elgin continued in the release. "In all prior communication we had with St. Louis’ local health authorities, we had clearly indicated that the MVC adhered to C.D.C. guidelines and NCAA Resocialization Guidelines.
"The MVC did not have the necessary conversations with local health officials to clarify that the administration of the tournament would be governed by St. Louis Health Commissioner’s COVID orders. I apologize and take full responsibility for not resolving the administration of policies that are in place during this year’s tournament.”
It was clear something was up well before tipoff Friday. Teams usually take the Enterprise Center court for a pregame shootaround roughly an hour before tip. But neither UNI or Drake had taken the floor by 5 p.m. ET. Fans were restricted from entering the building as well.
Around 5:45 p.m. ET, Drake came out of its locker room and began a shootaround on both ends of the floor. The Bulldogs were the only ones on the court until departing for the locker room around 6:15 p.m. ET. It was during that stretch the Enterprise Center scoreboard changed UNI and Drake emblems to Missouri State and Valparaiso graphics.
"MVC athletically-related activities will take place only to the extent permitted by local environments and applicable national, state, local and institutional guidelines in order to safeguard the health and safety of participants, staff and fans," the Valley release concluded. "Refunds will be made available to all ticket buyers at their original point of purchase. For tickets purchased through ticketmaster.com, tickets will be automatically refunded."
It's a tough ending for a UNI season that had its fair share of obstacles. The Panthers lost star guard AJ Green after three games, had several nonconference contests canceled over coronavirus issues and eventually slogged through a tough Valley season.
UNI had been playing better basketball of late, though. The Panthers beat Illinois State Thursday night at Enterprise Center to set up Friday's in-state showdown. After the Bulldogs wrecked UNI's NCAA Tournament hopes at Arch Madness last season, the Panthers hoped to return the favor in St. Louis.
Unfortunately, UNI won't get that chance.
"I’m frustrated and angry that our student-athletes didn’t have an opportunity to play tonight," Panthers athletic director David Harris said on Twitter on Friday night. "That opportunity was earned. The conference statement speaks in part to my frustration. I can’t put into words the depth of my disappointment for these young men. They deserved better."
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.