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.”