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College basketball’s abrupt end no fitting finale for these Tampa Bay locals

Seniors Tyson Ward (Tampa Prep) and Scottie James (Tarpon Springs) were guaranteed spots in the NCAA Tournament, while Thomas Dziagwa (Tampa Catholic) still had a fighting chance.
North Dakota State guard Tyson Ward (24) moves with the ball during the Summit League championship game against the North Dakota Fighting Hawks at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D. NDSU defeated UND 89-53 and would have moved on to the NCAA Tournament. [RUSSELL HONS |]

North Dakota State men’s basketball coach David Richman explained the scenarios to his players, about the possibility of the NCAA Tournament being held without fans or canceled. Still, the news was hard for Tyson Ward to take in.

The former Tampa Prep standout sat in disbelief last week when the messages started scrolling across his television and appearing on his phone. No March Madness due to the coronavirus pandemic. His senior season — as well as his college career — was over.

“I didn’t even know what to say or what to think,” Ward said. “I was just in shock.”

On Selection Sunday, Tyson and his teammates were supposed to see where they would be seeded. Plenty of prognosticators had North Dakota State coming to Amalie Arena for its opening-round games.

“The ultimate dream,” Ward said.

Related: USF spring football still in limbo as AAC shuts down 2019-20 season

Instead, the Bison, especially the seniors, spent the past few days saying their good-byes. Scheels Arena, where home games are played, was off limits. So Ward and his teammates gathered in apartments before heading off on what is an extended three-week spring break.

This was not the career ending Ward envisioned. Two weeks ago, he scored a career-high 29 points on senior night, a game attended by most of his family members. Ward followed that up by being named to the Summit League all-tournament team after scoring 23 points and grabbing a career-high 13 rebounds in a championship game win over North Dakota last week.

“It was big time what we were able to accomplish,” Ward said. “Back-to-back (Summit League) championships. And to do it with pretty much the same group of guys and build off something from the year before. Then it was done. There were definitely some tears shed after hearing the (NCAA) tournament was over, but it’s something you have to deal with.”

Liberty forward Scottie James (31) shoots a hook shot during NCAA basketball action against North Alabama at the Vines Center in Lynchburg, Va., in January. [JONATHAN HUFF |]

Tyson is not the only player with Tampa Bay area ties in that situation. Liberty’s Scottie James (Tarpon Springs) and Oklahoma State’s Thomas Dziagwa (Tampa Catholic) had their senior seasons end prematurely, too.

After helping the Flames win the Atlantic Sun Conference title for the second straight season, James and his teammates were practicing last week. Once James left the arena, his wife, Delaney, picked him up. They started hearing the cancellation chatter. Then they looked at their phones.

His season was no more.

“I was definitely heartbroken knowing (the NCAA Tournament) was not going to happen,” James said.

After transferring from Bradley in 2016, James became a solid contributor at Liberty, averaging double figures in scoring each of the past three seasons. To repeat as Atlantic Sun champions, the Flames had to get through the regular season and the tournament knowing they were a target for everyone else.

“We worked so hard to get back (to the NCAA Tournament),” James said. “The road was much more difficult for us. Everyone was trying to knock us off. It was gratifying, too, because we were able to win this (conference tournament title) in front of our fans (in Lynchburg, Va.).”

For Dziagwa, making the NCAA Tournament was a long shot. Oklahoma State was just above .500 entering last week’s Big 12 Conference tournament. But the Cowboys had some momentum, having won eight of 11, including their opening-round conference game, when the rest of the tournament was called off after the NCAA made its move.

Dziagwa, a sharpshooter, contributed heavily to the late-season surge. He finished among the top five in 3-pointers made in Oklahoma State history. He was a team captain.

The Cowboys were going to play Kansas in the next round of the conference tournament. At first, the game was scheduled with no fans. Soon after, everything was called off.

“It was disappointing and more shocking than anything else,” Dziagwa said.

His father, Tampa Catholic boys basketball coach Don Dziagwa, had planned two trips with his wife to watch their son in the final games of his college career. The first one was nixed because the Crusaders were playing in the Class 4A state championship game the same day Oklahoma State was playing its final regular-season game. Those airline tickets were nonrefundable.

Oklahoma State guard Thomas Dziagwa (4) shoots a runner over Houston guard Marcus Sasser (0) during a December game at the Fertitta Center in Houston. [PRENTICE C. JAMES |]

So the family traveled for the conference tournament instead. What was supposed to be an extended trip was cut short.

“As heart-wrenching as it was to lose our state championship game, it was even more difficult for my son and those seniors knowing they couldn’t play at all,” the elder Dziagwa said.

During Thomas Dziagwa’s career with the Cowboys, he endured three coaching changes, an NCAA investigation and the death of a teammate.

“It’s kind of mind-blowing,” he said. “We end our season on a world-wide epidemic. For the guys who were seniors, we’ve been through so much, you could write a book about it.”

What made it even harder for Thomas was that he was invited to the Final Four to participate in a 3-point-shooting contest. Instead, he is spending his spring break at school rather than flying home because of coronavirus fears.

“I wouldn’t want to get something traveling, then possibly pass it on to my parents,” he said.

Of the 15 players on the Cowboys’ roster, 10 went home for spring break. Few people are on campus in Stillwater.

“It’s really a ghost town right now,” Thomas said.

All three locals ended their careers with a victory, something only NCAA champions can claim in any other year. There is a possibility they could gain another year of eligibility, but would they want to come back?

“I don’t think I could go through another year of college,” Ward said. “I’m just ready to move on to the next chapter.”

The three are looking ahead to pro careers, likely overseas. But even that is uncertain for now.

“After everything that’s happened, you can’t take everything for granted,” Ward said. “You have to appreciate everything. Every little thing matters.”