Washington, D.C., can hardly be considered a paradise, especially these days. But for the Queens University basketball team, there was no better place to spend Thanksgiving.
Even though it meant doing without the usual turkey and trimmings.
The Royals traded their traditional holiday dinner for an opportunity to play up a level as part of the Paradise Jam, a multiteam event relocated from the Virgin Islands to the nation’s capital this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
They were invited as little more than an emergency replacement to fill out the field after several other teams decided not to participate. But apparently, nobody told them they were just there to be part of the show and do a little sightseeing.
The perennial Division II power from Charlotte crashed the Division I party by beating Howard and its prized freshman Makur Maker on Friday while also acquitting itself well in its other two games against George Mason and Belmont.
“It was awesome, awesome for our guys,” coach Bart Lundy said. “We would just have been sitting at home, not having much to do but practice, if we hadn’t got that phone call,” he said. “We were ecstatic.”
Lundy had just gotten the news that his team’s scheduled season opener against Belmont Abbey had been canceled because of positive COVID-19 tests when he got a call from Paradise Jam organizer Nels Hawkinson last Tuesday.
The timing turned out to be perfect.
Hawkinson was in desperate need of a team to play in his event after Northeastern opted out, then Baylor fell victim to coronavirus quarantines. He contacted Queens literally as the last resort on the recommendation of a mutual friend, Liberty coach Ritchie McKay.
Because Lundy was equally as desperate to find someone for his team to play after having its early-season schedule disrupted by four postponements or cancellations, he agreed to bring the Royals to Washington despite the short notice.
“We were pivoting like a ballerina,” Lundy said. “I said we’d go anywhere to play.”
His players, who were still processing the disappointment of having the start of their season delayed indefinitely, agreed.
“We got smacked in the face by Lundy saying he had a connection that could get us in there,” junior guard Kenny Dye said. “We just wanted to play somebody. We didn’t care if they were DI, pros, whatever. When we found out, we were happy to go.”
There was only one catch.
Because of guidelines set by D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser, everyone in the Royals’ traveling party had to have a negative coronavirus test before they’d be allowed to travel to the city.
Not just any kind of test. It had to be kind known as PCR (an acronym for Polymerase Chain Reaction), the most common and accurate test for determining whether someone is infected with COVID-19.
And they only had one day to get it all done.
“We had been taking PCR tests the whole time, except for this past Monday when we took the quicker antigen tests because of the turnaround to our Wednesday game,” Lundy said. “So we had to find someone who could help us get a rapid PCR test. Then we had to have our league approve an extra nonconference game because we could only play two.
“We went into that Wednesday not knowing what was going to happen. Miraculously, through 100 different phone calls, we found the rapid PCR tests and got approval from our league presidents — all before 1 o’clock when we had to leave for D.C.”
Just over 24 hours later, Queens had George Mason on the ropes, leading into the final minute before falling 65-64. The following day, Dye scored 16 points and handed out seven assists while Gavin Rains added 14 points and seven rebounds to lead an 85-71 victory against Howard in a game that saw the Royals score 25 points off 18 Bisons turnovers.
And they did it with one of their best players, 6-foot-8 sophomore Jamari Smith, sidelined with a knee injury.
Although the win was noteworthy because it was the school’s first regular-season victory ever against a Division I opponent, it wasn’t the first time Queens has beaten one of college basketball’s big boys.
In 2016, it upset Virginia Commonwealth in an exhibition game that set the stage for a season that ended in the Division II national semifinals.
Despite a 73-61 loss to Belmont in the final game of the Paradise Jam on Saturday, Dye and his teammates believe their performance in Washington could be the springboard for another championship-caliber season.
“This gives us crazy amounts of confidence,” said Dye, who averaged 15.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.0 steals in the three games to earn a spot on the all-tournament team. “After leaving that tournament, we feel that going into the (South Atlantic Conference) we can be unbeatable if we keep going the way we are and learning from our mistakes.
“We went in (to the Paradise Jam) with the mindset that we knew we could compete. We wanted to show the world that even though we’re a DII team, we’ve got guys that can hoop, too.”
In that respect, the Royals have plenty for which to be thankful over the holiday weekend.
Except, of course, for the lack of turkey.
“We were supposed to play Mason at 2 on Thursday and we were going to have the turkey dinner after, but there were some problems with Mason’s (COVID) tests, so we had to push the game back to 8,” Lundy said. “We couldn’t feed them turkey before, because they’d all be asleep for the game. They were a little upset about that, but they’re mostly turkeys themselves. And I’ll make it up to them.”