Looks of concern dotted PNC Arena Thursday evening near the conclusion of the first half of North Carolina’s game against Florida Gulf Coast. The Tar Heels’ tenuous one-point lead was most concerning to the three players who sit at the far end of the UNC bench.
The trio of senior walk-ons – Justin Coleman, Spenser Dalton and Toby Egbuna – feared being part of NCAA tournament history as players on the first top-seeded team to lose to a 16th-seed. Beyond that, the three saw their career-long dreams of appearing in an NCAA tournament game vanishing before their eyes.
Fear not, UNC charged to a 23-point lead midway through the second half, and a victory was in hand. The only remaining drama concerned when Roy Williams would stand and point to the end of the bench, the signal that Coleman, Dalton and Egbuna would be rewarded for their many hours of work during practice throughout the preseason and season.
Williams finally pointed his finger their way with 57.7 seconds remaining.
“When he called our names, it was joy, a joy to be out there, just to be on the biggest stage,” Coleman said.
“It’s a little bit different than getting into a normal regular season game because there’s so much more weight put on these games, one loss and you go home,” Dalton said. “It’s nice to be part of something that is just a little bit more special than a regular-season game.”
All three played two years on the UNC junior varsity team. Coleman and Dalton played the past two seasons on the varsity, and Egbuna joined the Tar Heels this season.
When he (Roy Williams) called our names, it was joy, a joy to be out there, just to be on the biggest stage.
UNC senior walk-on Justin Coleman
Coleman is a Raleigh Broughton graduate who is most proud of increasing his scoring total by 300 percent over last season. He matched his one successful free-throw attempt of a season ago against Davidson in December this season, then added a field goal against Boston College in late January.
“It’s an amazing experience,” Coleman said. “You never know what could happen in those few minutes you get in, but we definitely don’t take it for granted. We are very appreciative of our minutes. It’s a really cool experience.”
Dalton of Asheville played one minute in each of two games a season ago, upping his playing time to 17 minutes over 14 games this season. His only points of his career came on a field goal against Davidson.
Egbuna of Clemmons logged 16 minutes in 13 games this season without scoring. His best chance at scoring came in a 21-point, mid-February win at Pittsburgh when he took a pass from Coleman but could not convert an open layup.
While the end-of-game appearances are viewed by most fans as “garbage time,” those precious minutes are anything but playground basketball to the players and to Williams. Once a player on the UNC freshman team, the coach fully understands the importance of playing in games for non-scholarship players.
Williams continues to coach his walk-ons at the end of games in the same manner he directs the starters during a game’s tense moments. He demands that the walk-ons play hard on defense with a goal of keeping the opponent scoreless while executing UNC’s sets on offense.
In one early season game, Williams chastised his walk-ons for turning the final minute of play into a “circus.” Things did not go so well against Florida Gulf Coast on Thursday, either. The Eagles outscored the Tar Heels 5-1 during the final minute.
But the trio was thrilled afterward to have played in an NCAA tournament game. More importantly, their names will appear in the official box score forever, a historic account that each can verify in stories they tell to their children and grandchildren years from now.
Williams is well aware of that significance. For many years he heard Dean Smith recount how he played the final few seconds in Kansas’ 1952 national championship game victory over St. John’s. But the NCAA did not enter his name in the official box score. Because the game was not televised and statistical data from games was sketchy at best, Williams and others had to take Smith at his word.
When Williams was coaching at Kansas he asked athletic department officials to scour their records and newspaper clippings. When a box score was found with Smith’s name entered in the game, the NCAA changed its official records to include Smith.
“It has nothing to do with Coach Smith,” Williams said of his efforts to make certain walk-ons appear in games and box scores. “It’s that those kids work their tails off, and if you can just get in the game for 20 seconds to play in the NCAA tournament, it is a pretty neat deal. They can say they played, and not just sat there.”
After appearing in Thursday’s game, Egbuna said he can check one more item off his bucket list. Next up on the list would be an appearance in the Final Four, then the national championship game.