Hunter Hale has endured the disappointment of missing March Madness, been denied an opportunity to join his Winthrop teammates on college basketball’s grand stage and returned home to Michigan, for the time being.
He was supposed to spend last week in Spokane or Tampa or some other NCAA Tournament locale after he led the Eagles to the Hercules Tires Big South Men’s Basketball Championship title on March 8 on the Winthrop Coliseum floor. There were anticipated press conferences and practices and the chance to break open a bracket.
Instead, five days after he earned the Tournament Most Valuable Player award and the Eagles won their 12th Big South Tournament crown, a team meeting ended and within three minutes they learned the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship had been canceled due to the outbreak of COVID-19 (coronavirus).
“It was heartbreaking at the time,” Hale said. “It was more confusion and frustration than overall sadness. I was envisioning the end of my career, win or lose whether we ended up winning a title or whatever the case may be, envisioning it some kind of tears or a cheering type of sensation with the rest of my team. When that didn’t happen … (it) took me a couple of hours to process it.”
If ever there was a situation to wallow in self-pity, this was it. The cancellation was unprecedented, unexpected, unbelievable, sending ripples of despair and disbelief throughout the world of sports and the world at large. Hale chose to take a different approach, practicing lessons learned in his lone year at Winthrop once he realized his tournament dream was not postponed or suspended, but gone forever.
“I took it on the chin, like a man and I moved on in a positive way,” Hale said. “Our coach always talks about our response to the events that we have in our lives, so I just tried to respond the best way possible.”
Then again, the last five years gave Hale the tools to take an unfortunate situation and use it for good. Few thought he would be here at all.
Hale started college as a preferred walk-on at Central Michigan University. He played in 11 games as a freshman and redshirted the following year. He transferred to Grand Valley State, a Division II program in Allendale, Mich. and developed into a star, earning first-team All-Conference in his second season and playing in the NCAA Division II National Tournament.
Determined to prove he could flourish in Division I, Hale arrived at Winthrop for a graduate season. Productive from the start, possessing deep range on his jump shot and a scorer’s mentality, his leadership role evolved as the season unfolded. His relentless work ethic was apparent from the outset.
“That guy standing right there, that’s my brother,” Winthrop freshman D.J. Burns said minutes after the Eagles defeated Hampton to win the Big South championship. “I wouldn’t want to go to war with anybody else. That man will fight and work hard every day. I see the work he puts in from six in the morning all the way up until 10 o’clock at night, every single day. He’s definitely a big-time leader. He stepped up in the leadership council and he led us like a grown man.”
Winthrop rolled to 12 consecutive victories to open Big South play, winning 14 in a row overall. Porous defense contributed to three losses in a four-game stretch in mid-February. Hale, point guard Chandler Vaudrin and senior forward Josh Ferguson -- the team’s ‘leadership council’ -- absorbed their coaches’ admonishment and held younger teammates accountable with their words and actions.
“Internally I knew I had to flip a switch because these were the (last) few weeks of my college career coming up,” Hale said. “I didn’t want to sit around thinking, man I should’ve did this or I should’ve did that. For me, it was just knowing that the end is near and I’ve got to give it all I’ve got. I can’t leave nothing on the line for these guys, giving them everything I have was my motivation.”
After allowing 1.05 points per possession or more in each of their final six regular season games, Winthrop held its three tournament opponents to 0.93 ppp or less. Only USC Upstate scored 70 points - and that was in a 36-point romp in the quarterfinals.
Hale led the Eagles with 13.9 points per game on the season and poured in 59 points in the three-game run to the Big South title. Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey knew Hale could score when he offered a scholarship. What impressed him was the growth made on the defensive end and in the locker room. He also saw his long winding road to Winthrop as an asset and nothing else.
“Hunter I’m so proud of him … those guys have chips on their shoulders now. They weren’t riding on the nicest buses and staying in the nicest hotels,” Kelsey said in the press conference after the championship victory. “Everybody told them they weren’t good enough when they were recruiting them. Hunt has come in so hungry, he’s been phenomenal for us in this tournament.”
Like most of the nation, Hale has practiced social distancing and limited his interaction with others since he returned home. He’s tried to remain active and spent time one-on-one with a trainer at a local gym. He planned to return to Rock Hill later this week.
He was selected to represent the Big South in the 3X3U national tournament, joining teammate Ferguson along with Hampton’s Jermaine Marrow and Radford’s Travis Fields Jr. That event was also canceled but Hale knew they would’ve been a dangerous quartet. He relished the chance to play alongside those he spent a season trying to stop.
“As soon as I saw the team, I knew that we could make a deep run in the tournament,” he said. “We can all shoot the ball and would be difficult to guard.”
In the meantime, he plans to keep working toward his childhood goal of a 10-year career in professional basketball. Like he was in the second half against Hampton and throughout his lone season at Winthrop, he wants to be ready to seize the opportunity when his number is called.
Goodness will grow from these difficult days. Positive attitudes will be rewarded and people will emerge stronger, smarter and less likely to take even small pleasures for granted.
“Coach Prosser used to say all the time, this sports thing is a microcosm for life,” Kelsey said in the finals postgame press conference. “The adversity you face throughout a season, ups and downs, goods and bads, pressure on these guys, pressures that are on them, academically, socially, everything … it’s fun to see the resiliency of a group. Hopefully they learned a lot of lessons through that. We hit a really tough stretch [in mid-February], fought our way through it, found a renewed energy and this was as connected of a group as I’ve ever been around … really all year but these last two or three weeks has been ridiculous.”
Kelsey had no idea how the future could unfold when he made that comment on a joyful afternoon on March 8. Hale and his teammates proved the validity through their actions preceding the moment and have continued to do so in the strange days since.