Despite Josh Pastner’s best efforts, COVID-19 strikes at wrong time

February 27, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's forward Moses Wright and Georgia Tech's head coach Josh Pastner smile before their game against Syracuse during a NCAA college basketball game at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta on Saturday, February 27, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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February 27, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's forward Moses Wright and Georgia Tech's head coach Josh Pastner smile before their game against Syracuse during a NCAA college basketball game at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta on Saturday, February 27, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

As Josh Pastner is wont to do, he said the phrase over and over.

“We’ve just got to get to Indianapolis,” he said.

For his Georgia Tech team, Indianapolis meant the prize of the NCAA Tournament, the Yellow Jackets’ goal from the start of the season and a childhood dream for most, if not all of them. But it also held additional meaning, particularly for Pastner. With the stringent safety protocols designed by the NCAA to keep teams free of COVID-19 infection, reaching the tournament site would also mean that Pastner could yield his role as de facto team health monitor and let tournament organizers take over.

“We have to get to Indy,” Pastner said Friday. “That’s first and foremost. Because once you get to Indy, the way the NCAA has laid it out to the teams, how it’s going to be, it’s like you can take a sigh of relief because you can pass it to the NCAA now.”

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Pastner wasn’t complaining, but he was eager to be relieved of the responsibility of decision making, on everything from how players are spaced on buses to which locker room would be the safest, and serving as “COVID security guard,” as he said players had taken to calling him.

However, like the horror movies where the killer resurfaces right when the protagonists think they’re finally safe, the Jackets’ refuge in Indiana merely was a mirage, and yet another reminder of how perniciously the virus can operate.

On Friday afternoon, Tech will play Loyola Chicago in its first NCAA Tournament game since 2010, but will do so without ACC player of the year Moses Wright, who has been isolated in Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID on Monday.

“There’s no guarantees,” Pastner said Tuesday, when he announced that a member of the travel party had tested positive. “You can do everything right and, unfortunately, you can still have a positive. That’s just how tricky and scary and unfortunate this virus is. It’s invisible, and it’s hard to beat when you’ve got an invisible enemy.”

Pastner said additionally that he could return to the team if the eighth-seeded Jackets were to win their first two games and the person remained asymptomatic. That would mean defeating ninth-seeded Loyola (whose best player, All-American center Cameron Krutwig, would have been matched up with Wright) and most likely top-seeded Illinois on Sunday.

However, the chances of that happening without Wright, whose productivity, versatility and effort have led the Jackets to a season that has surpassed the expectations of nearly all, are far slimmer without him.

Pastner has been vigilant on his team adhering to safety protocols from the time that players returned to campus in the summer, insisting they wash their hands and shooing them out of the locker room after practice to limit their time together in an enclosed space.

He has had reason for concern. The team was quarantined for 14 days in September after a positive test. That was Pastner’s impetus to switch to non-contact practices, a plan he reversed after the Jackets showed poor form in losing their first two games. The Jackets also postponed three games in January after a positive test within the team. He has operated with the awareness that no game or player is a certainty.

Before the final game of the regular season, against Wake Forest on March 5 in Winston-Salem, N.C., Pastner went ahead with a plan not to return to Atlanta until the postseason was complete. The idea was to keep a tight circle around the travel party that would be going to the NCAA Tournament to limit exposure and hopefully avoid a positive test. After beating the Demon Deacons, the team bused to Greensboro, the site of the ACC Tournament.

The Jackets bunkered at the Grandover Resort hotel for a week, until Sunday, when they flew to Indianapolis for the NCAA Tournament. At the hotel, Pastner could monitor the team and staff’s adherence to protocol.

He said he chastised a staff member for picking up a shrimp cocktail while not wearing gloves. Similarly, when an ice-cream bar was set up for the team, Pastner said, no one could touch it without first putting on gloves.

“You can do everything you can the best that you can, and there’s no guarantee,” he said.

On March 8, the day that Wright was named ACC player of the year, Pastner said that the team had done stretching exercises the day before and then ate, but he made sure that everyone first washed his hands.

“You’ve got to sing ‘Happy birthday’ to yourself,” Pastner said, referring to the guidance to scrub for the duration of the song. “That’s how I’ve been all year with this, and we’ll continue to do that.”

Pastner initially granted a request from players to have a hair stylist or barber made available to them while in Greensboro, pending negative tests. He later turned it down, reminded of situations with two Kansas City Chiefs players and two NBA players ahead of the Super Bowl and NBA All-Star game, respectively, who were all quarantined when their barbers tested positive.

Players who had family members at the tournament could only see them from an appropriate distance. Tech was sharing the hotel with three other ACC teams. Pastner warned travel-party members about interacting closely with anyone else. If they were taking the elevator and someone else was already on it, he said, wait for the next elevator.

“You don’t want to be rude, you’re trying to get to Indianapolis,” he said Friday, the day that Tech’s ACC Tournament semifinal game was canceled after Virginia withdrew because of a positive test within the team.

When Tech won the championship Saturday over Florida State, it appeared the Jackets had made it through and could now advance safely to Indianapolis. But what Pastner on Tuesday called “abnormalities” surfaced in postgame testing. Only after health officials investigated the issues “as thoroughly as you can investigate something,” Pastner said, was the team cleared to travel, although he had two travel-party members make the trip separately out of what he called an abundance of caution.

After arriving Sunday night, the team submitted to intake testing Monday, which is when the positive test surfaced. For Tech, it was the wrong player and the wrong time, a dream denied for a hardworking player and exemplary teammate and another infection for the invisible enemy, one of more than 29 million in the U.S. according to the CDC. On Tuesday, Pastner could report that the person (Wright) was asymptomatic, for which the coach was thankful.

“But it’s a gut punch,” Pastner said. “It stinks.”