When the final seconds expired on Sunday and North Carolina’s victory against Notre Dame was over, Justin Coleman began embracing his teammates and savoring a moment he’d imagined, sure, but one years ago he never thought possible.
“Amazing,” Coleman said again and again, inside the Tar Heels’ locker room after their 88-74 victory in the NCAA tournament East regional championship game.
UNC’s run to the Final Four in Houston is special for anyone involved in the program – from head coach Roy Williams to members of the office staff at the Smith Center. And for UNC’s walk-ons, a group that includes Coleman and fellow seniors Spenser Dalton and Toby Egbuna, the journey is especially surreal.
Coleman, a graduate of Broughton in Raleigh, earned a scholarship before this season began. That came after he spent about a full season with the varsity team, and after he’d spent two years playing on UNC’s junior varsity team, which is a relic leftover from Dean Smith’s head coaching tenure.
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No other major college basketball program has a JV team these days. Smith wanted it to remain at UNC, though, to give members of the student body a chance to become a part of the basketball program. And so every fall dozens of UNC students come out for a two-day tryout, hopeful of making the team and, one day, of receiving an unlikely call from Williams.
The JV team also provides head coaching experience, however limited, for one of UNC’s assistants. C.B. McGrath is the JV coach this season; Hubert Davis coached the previous two seasons.
Every year, depending on numbers and attrition and available roster spots, Williams might call up a JV player to varsity. Coleman received that call last year and, now, here he is: bound for Houston and the Final Four, where the No. 1 seed Tar Heels will play No. 10 Syracuse Saturday.
“Sometimes we don’t even feel like it’s real,” Coleman said on Sunday night while tying his tie, needing to look sharp, like rest of his team, for the walk back to the bus and then later to the plane. “Like we’re living in a dream world.”
Coleman’s story, especially, is the stuff of fantasy. During his high school years, he suffered a serious neck injury in a summer game when he slid head first into a wall after he was fouled. Doctors doubted he’d ever be able to play basketball again.
He returned to play at Broughton. Then he was involved in a car accident that left another motorist dead, a moment that “devastated” him emotionally and mentally, Coleman said earlier this season.
He recovered from his physical scars, and the mental ones, and made the JV team at UNC and eventually earned that scholarship. Williams brought Coleman in front of the team and made the announcement in August. Everybody celebrated.
Then, just before the start of the season, Coleman suffered a severe reaction to a prescription medication. For a while he couldn’t practice, and he didn’t dress out for the first seven games of the season.
Eventually he came back from that, too. In his first game of the season with the team, a victory against Davidson, Coleman played in the final couple of minutes. He made a free throw that elicited some loud applause at the Smith Center.
He made his first shot from the field in the final seconds of a Jan. 30 victory against Boston College. It was Coleman’s first varsity basket and his teammates on the bench went wild. They all knew how far he’d come, how much he’d overcome to reach that point.
And the journey was hardly over. In some ways it was just beginning, because the Tar Heels of late January hadn’t yet started to become who they are today. Coleman has been along for the ride and in practices, at least, an active participant in it.
And now he’s Final Four bound. From Broughton to the UNC JV team to Houston.
“Amazing,” Coleman said again Sunday, one of five times he said the word in a span of about 90 seconds. “It’s unreal to think about where we’ve come from and just everything happened so fast.”
Coleman was talking about the path he and Dalton and Egbuna had taken to reach this point.
“It’s an experience that we can’t even put into words, really,” Coleman said.