Evan Fjeld, awash in grief, knew the meaning of loss. Only days after his mother died of breast cancer, he addressed his Vermont teammates on the morning of Saturday's America East championship game.
"I told them before we took the court, life is just a bunch of trials and we had two trials this week," Fjeld said. "The first one was the hard one. The game is just a victory lap."
Vermont (25-9) won. The reward: a first-round matchup against top-seeded Syracuse (28-4) on Friday in Buffalo. One week later, a memorial service for Susan Fjeld will be held in Durham, where her son grew up and her husband, Jon, is a professor at Duke's Fuqua School of Business. She was 52.
Now Evan Fjeld (fee-ELD), a 6-foot-8 junior forward and third-team All-America East selection, will continue his basketball career without his biggest fan. Her cancer never stopped her from watching his games, nor will her death stop him from playing.
"She went to such great lengths to make sure her cancer didn't affect my life, as much as she could," Fjeld said.
His mother had first been diagnosed with cancer when he was a sophomore at Durham Academy. Evan and his older sister lived with her fight for years, watching her struggle through the treatments, finding out only later how much more of her suffering she hid from them.
His college choice took him far away, but his parents bought a condo in Burlington, Vt., so they could attend all of his games. The whole family took refuge in basketball, even more so this year as the Catamounts won the regular-season title and advanced through the conference tournament.
His teammates saw the family at games and had no idea anything was wrong. Evan told only one assistant coach, whose mother was fighting her own battle with cancer. That information was quietly passed along to Vermont coach Mike Lonergan, whose mother died of breast cancer when he was 29, 15 years ago. Lonergan observed Evan closely but saw signs only of a player committed to having the best season of his career.
By March 7, Fjeld knew her time was running out, just as his basketball career was reaching its apex. He broke the news to the team for the first time last Monday; she died late that night. Last Tuesday's practice, without Evan, was a disaster. But as the game approached, Fjeld never hesitated. He would play on.
A game that began with a moment of silence for Fjeld's mother ended with an 83-70 win over Boston University. Fjeld had nine points, six rebounds and a blocked shot, and he took charge at critical moments despite having four fouls at the time.
"I normally would never put a kid in with four fouls with 12, 11, 10 minutes to go," Lon ergan said. "But I said there's no way God is going to let this kid foul out."
Fjeld eventually picked up a fifth, but after victory was assured. From the stands, Jon Fjeld admired the home-floor celebration until his son appeared directly in front of him. Both in tears, they hugged, their joy intertwined with their grief, Susan's presence felt as much as her absence.
She had never missed many of Evan's games, even going back to his Woodcroft youth-league days, and if basketball was just an excuse to move north with their son, it was a good one.
"For his mom to have him close was one of the most important things to her," Jon Fjeld said. "You can't really imagine the strength and comfort she got from having him here."
Now, his teammates will try to continue to draw strength and comfort from one of their own, whose perseverance in the face of grief has given them every reason to excel.
Lonergan told his players not to put pressure on themselves to win for her Saturday, because he didn't want them to feel guilty if they lost. Against Syracuse, they have nothing to lose.
"It should make us appreciate getting to this point and enjoy it more," Lonergan said. "Life can be cruel at times. You gotta take the good with the bad."
A No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed, but if there ever was a team with the rallying cry to pull it off, this would be the one: a team looking for another victory lap, a son playing in memory of a mother who is no longer there to watch.