Utah coach says team was shaken after experiencing racist hate during NCAA Tournament

Utah head coach Lynne Roberts speaks during a press conference after a second-round college basketball game against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash., Monday, March 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Utah head coach Lynne Roberts speaks during a press conference after a second-round college basketball game against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash., Monday, March 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Members of the Utah women’s basketball team were subjected to racism near their hotel in Idaho last week when a pickup truck with a Confederate flag drove near them and the driver began using offensive language, including the N-word, authorities said Tuesday. The team was left shaken and wound up moving to a different hotel the next day.

Utah coach Lynne Roberts said her team experienced a series of hate crimes after arriving at its first NCAA Tournament hotel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. She revealed what happened after Utah lost to Gonzaga in the second round of the tournament Monday night and authorities confirmed some of the details the following day.

Roberts said the incidents happened last Thursday night after the team arrived and they were disturbing to the traveling party to the point there were concerns about safety. Utah and other teams played their games in Spokane, but the Utes were staying about 30 miles away in Coeur d’Alene before they were relocated to a different hotel Friday.

“We had several instances of some kind of racial hate crimes toward our program and (it was) incredibly upsetting for all of us,” Roberts said. “In our world, in athletics and in university settings, it’s shocking. There’s so much diversity on a college campus and so you’re just not exposed to that very often.”

Tony Stewart, an official with the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, said at a news conference the Utes were walking from the hotel to a restaurant when the truck drove up and the driver began using racist language. After the team left the restaurant, the same driver returned “reinforced by others,” Stewart said, and they revved their engines and again yelled at the players.

“We all just were in shock, and we looked at each other like, did we just hear that? … Everybody was in shock — our cheerleaders, our students that were in that area that heard it clearly were just frozen,” Utah deputy athletic director Charmelle Green, who is Black, told KSL.com.

Utah said it filed a police report the night of the incidents. Coeur d’Alene police chief Lee White said Tuesday about 100 people were around the area that night, but investigators need to interview those affected. He said there are two state charges that could be enforced — malicious harassment and disorderly conduct — if someone is arrested. White also said he was working with the FBI.

“Until we get all the facts and the investigation is complete, what charges might actually be brought against the perpetrators is yet to be determined,” White said.

Utah, South Dakota State and UC Irvine were staying at hotels in Idaho, even with Gonzaga as the host school, because of a lack of hotel space in the Spokane area. Several years ago, the city was announced as a host for the first and second rounds of the men’s NCAA Tournament and there was also a large youth volleyball tournament in the area during the weekend.

That left limited hotel space and Gonzaga received a waiver from the NCAA to allow teams to be housed in Idaho.

South Dakota State stayed in Post Falls, just west of Coeur d’Alene and on the Idaho-Washington state line. UC Irvine stayed in Coeur d’Alene, but was not involved in the incident with Utah. Even so, the team requested to move “for the well-being and safety of our student-athletes and the entire travel party,” Mike Uhlenkamp, assistant vice chancellor for communications and media relations, said in an email.

The women’s tournament differs from the men in that the 16 campus sites for first- and second-round games are not locked in until Selection Sunday, five days before those games begin. The campus sites allow host teams — the 16 highest seeds — to enjoy a homecourt advantage and, often, large crowds. Men’s sites are at neutral venues and chosen years in advance.

NCAA Vice President for Women’s Basketball Lynn Holzman told the AP that the selection committee was slated to review the championship format after the 2025 tournament. She has been pushing for some time to move the review up to this year.

“That review would include the first four, first and second rounds and also an evaluation of the two-site regional format,” Holzman said. “We want to look at the preliminary rounds of the championship and with the growth we’ve had the last few years I think we should move up that review to start in 2024.”

The NCAA issued a statement earlier in the day thanking the leadership at Gonzaga and Utah as well as law enforcement.

“We are devastated about the Utah team’s experience while traveling to compete on what should have been a weekend competing on the brightest stage and creating some of the fondest memories of their lives,” the statement said.

Utah athletic director Mark Harlan criticized the decision to put the Utes so far away from the game site.

“As we continue to heal, we remain very disappointed in the decision to assign our team to hotels such a great distance from the competition site, in another state,” he said in a statement co-signed by Green and Roberts issued Tuesday. “We will work with NCAA leadership to make it clear that being so far removed from the site was unacceptable and a contributing factor to the impact of this incident.”

“Racism is real and it happens, and it’s awful. So for our players, whether they are white, Black, green, whatever, no one knew how to handle it and it was really upsetting,” Roberts said. “For our players and staff to not feel safe in an NCAA Tournament environment, it’s messed up.”

Roberts said the NCAA and Gonzaga worked to move the team after the first night. Gonzaga issued a statement saying the school was ”frustrated and deeply saddened” by the incident.

Far-right extremists have maintained a presence in the region for years. In 2018, at least nine hate groups operated in the region of Spokane and northern Idaho, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little issued a statement that read, in part, “There is no place for racism, hate, or bigotry in the great State of Idaho. We condemn bullies who seek to harass and silence others.”

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AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg and AP Sports Writer Mark Anderson in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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