Big Dance for the Tar Heels
The last time Kanler Coker had done something like this? He had to think about it for a second.
“Are you meanin’ in practice or ...” Coker, the North Carolina senior guard, said in the Tar Heels’ locker room after their 103-64 victory against Texas Southern on Friday night in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
It was a victory that will be remembered for a few things: Justin Jackson breaking out of his shooting slump, for one. The Tar Heels’ overall dominance. But if there was a signature moment, a signature play from UNC’s opening-round victory, it might have come with about one minute remaining.
By then the outcome had long been decided. UNC led 99-61. Coach Roy Williams had cleared his bench a few minutes earlier. The walk-ons were in, along with reserves who don’t play too often. Coker, the 6-4 guard who is on scholarship this season, was among them.
Entering the NCAA tournament, Coker, a former member of UNC’s football team, had played in 19 games this season. He’d played for a total of 24 minutes. He’d scored five points. With UNC leading by 35 points, though, and with three minutes remaining, here came Coker on Friday night.
His first couple of minutes were mostly uneventful, even if he did make two free throws with about 2½ minutes remaining. He committed a foul with 74 seconds to play. And then, about 10 seconds after that, Coker’s moment arrived.
Texas Southern missed a shot. Aaron Rohlman, one of UNC’s walk-ons, rebounded it. Coker received a pass on the other side. Suddenly the basket appeared before him.
He was free and open. He drove in, approached the goal, jumped and then pulled the ball back and then up again. Coker’s description didn’t exactly do the play justice: “I just went to the basket and made the layup,” he said.
It was a reverse layup, fancy-looking and pure. UNC’s score went from 99 to 101. UNC’s starters and regular reserves celebrated the moment. They jumped and screamed and embraced. It was as if Coker had just made a buzzer beater to win a championship or won a dunk contest.
And yet it was none of those things. It was just Coker’s March moment: a reverse layup in the final minute of a first-round blowout. It was a play that meant nothing. And a play that meant everything. Jackson, who scored a team-high 21 points, called Coker’s reverse “the play of the game.”
It represented, he said, a little bit about what the NCAA tournament is about.
“It’s players that you wouldn’t expect to make plays making plays,” Jackson said. “And so it was good to sit over there and watch them play a little bit, and just see them do a few things.”
Had this been a UNC home game at the Smith Center, Coker’s layup would have meant biscuits. More precisely, it would have triggered the promotion in which Bojangles’ sells biscuits at a discount whenever the Tar Heels score 100 points.
The promotion isn’t in play during the NCAA tournament. Coker sounded disappointed to learn that.
“They don’t do it in the tournament?” he asked. “... That’s crazy.”
The whole thing was sort of crazy, anyway, the sight of Coker breaking out a reverse during the NCAA tournament. He guessed that the last time he’d done such a thing was sometime in practice.
At least he’d tried to do in practice. Coker is a member of the “blue team,” the revered group of second – or third – team players that prepare the starters. Jackson said he’d seen Coker try to do what he did on Friday night.
“But I’ve never seen him finish it like that,” Jackson said. “And it was actually pretty smooth. So he tries a lot of stuff in practice. But for him to pull that out in the game, that was elite.”
The celebration was something, too: wild and untamed, an organic moment of March jubilation.
Coker heard the celebration before he saw it. Then he glanced over.
“And those guys were going crazy,” he said. “It made my day.”