By John Bohnenkamp
Grace Gilmore’s family made it to Macomb for Senior Night.
Except while Gilmore, a senior guard for Western Illinois, was playing at Western Hall in Saturday’s game against Denver, Gilmore’s family was downtown at The Sports Corner, a restaurant next to the town square.
Such is life during the COVID-19 pandemic, when fans were locked out of WIU home games.
So coach JD Gravina had an idea. He put together a Zoom conference where her family and friends could be on to watch the Senior Night ceremony for Gilmore.
And then, during the ceremony, he showed it on his phone to Gilmore, who was able to wave to everyone watching.
“I was a mess before the game,” Gilmore said after the Leathernecks defeated Denver, 90-82, to complete the sweep of the two-game weekend series. “I was sobbing, just because I felt all of the love. I was trying not to think about it being my last game on this court, because then I knew I wouldn’t be able to get it together. I felt all of the love tonight, and it was really special.”
In a normal season, Gilmore’s family and friends would have been able to be at the game.
“I’m not going to lie. It’s heartbreaking,” Gravina said. “We tried really hard to make that happen.
“I appreciate Grace and her family understanding. I think we were able, in a different way, to show our appreciation. It does upset me that she didn’t get that standing ovation she deserves in person. Unfortunately, that’s the way the year has gone when you’re in a global pandemic.”
Gilmore, the Leathernecks’ leading scorer at 13.3 points per game this season, had 20 points in her final home game. She was one of five WIU players in double figures — Danni Nichols had 24 points, Evan Zars and Sam Pryor each had 12, and Elizabeth Lutz added 10.
Gilmore, from Hartland, Wis., has been an emotional leader for the Leathernecks throughout her career. Gravina estimates she’s drawn 200 offensive fouls in her career — “I wish we would have kept track of them,” he said, “I think she probably would have the NCAA record for them.”
Gilmore is fifth in the nation in free throws attempted at 143, and eighth in free throws made at 102.
“I hope that she realizes how loved she is,” Gravina said. “I had a lot of people texting me, Facebook-messaging me, telling me to pass on their appreciation for Grace. I think even though we couldn’t have a crowd, people showed that by going above and beyond to get the link from me and log in to watch the ceremony.”
“Seeing on the Zoom the extra effort people made to support me, it was, like, really special,” Gilmore said. “And it was a surprise.”
Western Illinois, at 7-15 overall and 6-8 in the Summit League, clinched a spot in the conference tournament. It took a little bit of maneuvering at the beginning of the season, but the Leathernecks have been able to play a full schedule.
“I’m thrilled to death that Grace has had a pretty full basketball season,” Gravina said. “We might lead the nation in games played. It’s easy to be sad that your family doesn’t get to watch you, or the fans don’t get to watch you, but I think her and I, and the team, have been able to piece together the season we had, and still allow her to have a competitive season.”
“We’ve played a ton of games, so it’s been good,” Gilmore said. “Honestly, without having fans, it’s been a bummer, not having the community here in Western Hall. But our team is kind of our family. So it’s been special. That’s all we really need is our close-knit team here. I see it as a cool opportunity to go out and prove ourselves in a unique experience.”
Photo: Western Illinois’ Grace Gilmore (right) had an unusual Senior Night ceremony on Saturday. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)