Walk-ons get moment in spotlight at senior night
North Carolina fans may recall some memorable performances by seniors in their final home game. There was Phil Ford scoring 34 against Duke to clinch the ACC regular-season title in ’78 and Matt Doherty hitting a runner at the end of regulation to help preserve a perfect ACC record in ’84. More recently, Tyler Zeller made 21 of 24 free throws and posted 30 points two years ago.
Tar Heels forward Denzel Robinson has a different senior game memory – when walk-on Surry Wood made both of his field goals and scored a career-high four points in the first four minutes against Florida State in 2008.
The final home game is when programs recognize their seniors. But as part of a tradition that dates back to Dean Smith, seniors at UNC – scholarship players and walk-ons alike – all get the additional honor of being in the starting lineup.
Robinson and fellow Chapel Hill High graduate James Manor have combined for 10 points in 20 minutes this season. But tonight against Notre Dame at the Smith Center (7 p.m., ESPN), they will join Ford, Michael Jordan, Tyler Hansbrough and all the other famous players who have started for the Tar Heels.
“It’s one of those things that you look forward to ever since making the team because it’s such a unique opportunity to start for North Carolina – something that I never in my wildest dreams imagined would happen,” said Manor, a Carrboro native. “Especially growing up here and knowing the tradition. It’s just a really cool opportunity.”
For the stars, it’s one final chance to shine in front of their home fans. For players like Wood, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and Wood’s performance provides inspiration for his fellow walk-ons.
Robinson’s dream tonight would be to dunk. But the walk-ons mostly have more pedestrian goals when they take the court against Notre Dame’s regular starting lineup – run the offense, play strong defense, and don’t turn the ball over or put the team at a big disadvantage early.
“You go up against some really great players every day (in practice), so going against Notre Dame shouldn’t be any different in terms of skill level,” Robinson said. “You should have confidence in yourself and know that you’ll be all right, and just lose yourself in the game.”
Both Robinson and Manor attended UNC games growing up, although in very different locations. Robinson would sit on the bench – his father, Steve Robinson, is in his 19th season as an assistant under Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams. Manor would watch from the upper deck whenever his father would buy tickets from their neighbor.
But neither player thought they would play basketball for the Tar Heels, even after they arrived on campus. Robinson had lost his love for the game and was considering giving it up, while Manor had turned down some Division III offers and assumed his playing career was over.
Then they both made UNC’s junior varsity team as freshmen and moved up to the varsity as juniors.
With the exception of blowouts, when they hit the court to finish off games against overmatched opponents, the walk-ons mostly work anonymously, playing the role of the scout team in practice to help the starters prepare for their next opponent.
But for one game they will hear their names announced in the starting lineup and be the center of attention. At least until they’re replaced by the All-Americans on UNC’s roster early in the first half.
Steve Robinson liked the tradition so much he incorporated it when he was the head coach at Tulsa and Florida State.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Thank you for being a part of this. Thank you for working hard every day and doing whatever we ask you to do,’” Denzel Robinson said. “Even if it’s just one second of playing, I can’t ask for more. I’m just happy that Coach Smith started this and Coach Williams has continued it. I think it’s a very classy gesture to send the seniors out the right way.”