The lights in the Smith Center were already dimmed, and the blue and yellow industrial vacuums already at work on its floor, as three players exited the locker room for their first interviews as members of the North Carolina men’s basketball team.
The season-opening win over Northern Iowa on Friday night was a comfortable one. In an 86-69 victory, No. 9 UNC shot 50 percent from the floor, won its 19th straight home game and committed just seven turnovers — its fewest in a season opener since 1997.
So, naturally, the focus in game shifted to other things. Who would step up in the frontcourt? Junior Luke Maye definitely made a mark with a career-high 26 points in 28 minutes. With Joel Berry II out for the first two games — and perhaps more— who would handle the ball and run the offense? Senior Theo Pinson and junior Kenny Williams, both of whom had five assists, played well as temporary replacements.
But now, for the first time since enrolling at UNC, working out over the summer and scrimmaging Memphis in secret, Barton College at home and three more North Carolina schools for charity, Jalek Felton, Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks gave their answers to these questions.
Felton was first. Wearing a T-shirt featuring a young Michael Jordan and a black jacket with No. 23 on it, he chose a stool in the far corner of the interview room. He figured out he was getting the start at point guard over sophomore Seventh Woods just moments before the game started. And although he hadn't checked his phone yet, it was a safe bet his uncle Raymond Felton had already texted him a congratulations.
“It’s a blessing,” he said. “Joel just told me to take it all in, take it one play at a time, try to be the best defender and set the tone from the beginning.”
The 6-foot-3 guard had five points in 22 minutes of play. He shot 1-3 on 3-pointers and scored his first career field goal on a spin move that began outside the paint and ended with a soft right-hand scoop. He added two steals and one assist (he just missed an unsuspecting Maye with a behind-the-head pass on a fast break for a second).
“I’m a pass-first type guy,” Felton said. “I’m going to let my teammates get involved first, because scoring comes for a guard.”
By this point, Manley had made his way to a nearby table and sat down. He relaxed and stretched out his 6-foot-11 frame. During high school in Ohio, Manley broke both of his legs. Now, he had put up nine points and eight rebounds in 14 minutes.
“Seeing the fans and people calling out your name and stuff — that really got to me,” he said. “People saying, ‘Sterling! Sterling!’ when I’m about to run an out-of-bounds play. That got me.”
Three of Manley’s rebounds came on the offensive end. He shot 3-5 on free throws, and he drew multiple fouls on Northern Iowa while fighting for position down low. Even though he and head coach Roy Williams agreed he still needs to work on his floor running, it was all surreal to him.
The last out was Garrison Brooks. Before Friday night, the last two Tar Heels to start in their debuts were guard Wayne Ellington and forward Brandan Wright in 2007. Felton and Brooks now hold that honor.
Brooks put up 14 points on 5-6 shooting and six rebounds. He scored the team’s first four points and hit Maye for two easy layups in less than one minute while he worked out of the high post. Williams may have been most happy with Brooks when he hit the floor for a loose ball, something he didn’t do in the scrimmages last Sunday.
“You know what? I was actually really calm today,” Brooks said. “In the exhibition game, I was really nervous. But today, I decided in my mind it was just basketball.”
The three players, who are roommates, exited through the same glass door they came into. For the first time in their careers, they had participated in shoot-around, ran out of the Smith Center’s tunnel and stepped onto the court as Tar Heels. There were positives and, as Williams emphasized, still plenty of problems that needed work. Regardless of performance, one thing was clear.
Their first chapter was complete.
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