Tommy Nuño heard the news on the way to the game.
The NBA had already postponed its season indefinitely. The NCAA, before it pulled the plug completely, stated it would not allow fans at its annual tournament. While on a bus ride from Grand Junction, Colo., bound for Denver and eventually to Texas for the first round of the NCAA Division II Tournament, Nuño and the rest of the players and staff on the Colorado Mesa University basketball team received word the tournament had been canceled. Nuño, along with countless collegiate and high school athletes around the country, had his senior season cut short due to cancellations caused by the coronavirus.
For Nuño, a member of the Half Moon Bay High School class of 2016, it was a tough pill to swallow and an abrupt, unfortunate end to his most productive basketball season to date. In his two seasons at Colorado Mesa, a Division II school in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, Nuno had established himself as a key pillar of a revitalized program. Through 31 games this year, Nuño averaged 14.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists, leading the team in all categories. He posted double figures in scoring in 25 games, including a season-high 36 against Black Hills State.
Nuño, a 6-foot-5, 180-pound guard, made his way to Grand Junction two years ago. He and his teammate Jess Spivey from Fresno City College visited the campus together and were sold. His arrival coincided with the arrival of Mike DeGeorge, who was hired as the Mavericks head coach in 2018 to help rebuild the team.
“(DeGeorge) said he wanted to bring in a winning culture and change the program,” Nuño recalled. “I thought that would be something cool to be a part of.”
Coming off a 11-17 season in 2017, DeGeorge said Nuño was instrumental in their success over the last two years.
“Tommy’s literally been a dream to coach,” DeGeorge said. “When you’re trying to restart a program and build a culture, I can’t tell you what a huge role he’s played in that. Every success we’ve had is a direct reflection of his work.”
DeGeorge and his staff pushed Nuño to be a scorer and not just set up teammates. Nuño gradually got more comfortable being an offensive force and put in a lot of work during the offseason. His performance took a jump after his junior year, in which he received an RMAC all-conference honorable mention. After a regular season in his senior year, Nuño received Colorado Mesa’s lone First Team All-League honors.
“I think he worked harder on his shot than anyone I’ve ever coached,” DeGeorge said. “There was one stage in the fall where his hands were bleeding from how much he was shooting.”
Nuño explained, while he’s always had the drive to be better, it was the atmosphere at Fresno City College, surrounded by talented like-minded individuals, that gave him a new perspective.
“The coach there was really hard on me and on everybody,” Nuño said. “He was trying to push you to that next level. That’s when I realized I had to put in extra work and try that much harder to be better than those guys.”
Over Nuño’s two seasons at Colorado Mesa, the team went 19-10, then 21-10. His final game in a Mavericks jersey etched another moment in the school’s history. He scored 18 points and grabbed 15 rebounds to lead the Mavericks to their first RMAC Tournament title in its Division II history, which goes back to 1993.
The 69-61 win over the Colorado School of Mines on March 7 was filled with drama. The Mavericks, the No. 4 seed in the tournament blew a 13-point lead after the No. 3 Mines took its first lead of the game with a minute remaining. The next possession, the ball came Nuño’s way when he was open in the paint. As the defense rotated, Nuño swung the ball to the top of the key into the hands of Georgie Dancer, who buried a 3-pointer with 58 seconds remaining to retake the lead, 60-58. Mesa would retain the lead for good.
“It was a good example of what that team was and a great example of what Tommy is as a player,” DeGeorge recalled.
The team had some experience with clutch performances late in games. In the game prior, it was Nuño who iced the 86-79 win over No. 1 Dixie State University. His mid-range jumper with less than a minute remaining was a difference maker.
“It wasn’t about one guy,” Nuño said of the team’s system. “I may have led the team in scoring, but there were about five or six of us that could average 15 points a game. Some nights were just different guys’ nights.”
It was a key moment for Nuño, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player. This season was set up for Nuño and the Mavericks to take a run in the NCAA Tournament, which would have started on March 14.
Nuño is now taking classes online for his business marketing major. But he’s got his eyes on continuing his basketball career, perhaps overseas.
“I’m hoping to continue to play, it’s what I love to do,” he said. “So might as well keep doing it, right?