Several Winston-Salem State basketball players grew up cheering for either Duke or North Carolina. None of that will matter on Friday night.
The Rams will play an exhibition game against the Tar Heels that night at the Smith Center. Normally, a Division II school going against a Division I powerhouse doesn’t grab the headlines.
In this case, however, the Rams are excited about the opportunity. Of the 16 players on Coach Cleo Hill, Jr.’s roster, 12 of them are from North Carolina.
“I’ve always been a North Carolina fan,” said sophomore Xavier Fennell of the Rams, “but not this week.”
Friday’s game, which is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., comes right in the middle of homecoming at WSSU. There are at least two buses scheduled to make the round trip between Winston-Salem and Chapel Hill carrying WSSU fans and alumni to the game.
One of the newcomers on the Rams’ roster is sophomore Jaylen Alston, a transfer from Gardner-Webb. As a member of the Eastern Guilford boys basketball team in 2017, Alston played at the Smith Center that season in the NCHSAA Class 3-A championship game.
“I think it will help,” said Alston, who is expected to be in the starting lineup on Friday. “It will bring back some of the same memories I had before when I played there. Just feeling the atmosphere and being inside the Dean Dome was something I remember.”
Hill said WSSU has plenty to play for on Friday, but the main focus is to enjoy the experience.
“Looking at the big picture, it’s the experience of playing in an atmosphere like that against a storied program is probably the biggest thing,” Hill said. “Other than that we want to go in and just play well. We have a game plan going in and we just want to see what all our new guys can do in any particular game.”
Since WSSU began practicing, it was not known if Justice Kithcart, a transfer from Old Dominion, would be eligible, but Hill said Kithcart has been cleared by the NCAA. The only problem, however, is Kitchart has a nagging injury.
“We don’t know if he can go,” Hill said before Monday afternoon’s closed scrimmage against Guilford Tech at the Gaines Center.
Because it was a closed scrimmage no media or fans were allowed into the Gaines Center to watch. The jump in competition will be a big one going from Guilford Tech to the Tar Heels, who are ranked 10th in The Associated Press' preseason poll.
Hill said WSSU's starting lineup is not set yet. A good guess would be Alston, Kitchart, Robert Colon, Melvin Huntley and point guard Jonathan Hicklin, a point 6-foot-4 point guard transfer from James Madison.
Colon, who is the Rams’ most experienced player and is a three-year starer, is looking forward to Friday’s game.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” said Colon, a senior who is an All-CIAA player who has scored more than 1,000 points in his career. “I think it’s a big game where we can all kind of showcase what we can do in a big gym like that. Some of us have dreams of playing professional, and this is an opportunity on a big stage even though it’s an exhibition game.”
Colon, who grew up a Duke fan, says there is more motivation to do well against the Tar Heels.
“This is for the university and that we can play a game at an ACC school like that is really a big deal for us,” Colon said. “And we get to play against one of the top teams in the nation.
"I heard that Northwest Missouri State (the Division II national champion) gave Duke a good game the other night, so we want to do the same thing.”
Duke defeated Northwest Missouri State 69-63. Sophomore guard Tre Jones scored a team-high 18 points and had five rebounds for the Blue Devils, and freshman forward Matthew Hurt finished with 17 points.
Colon says another reason he’s excited about the chance to play in the Smith Center is that his late grandfather, who died earlier this year, was a big North Carolina fan.
“I’ve got his name written on my shoes,” he said, “and my whole family will be there.”
Hill has plenty of connections to the Tar Heels, starting with his wife, Regina, who works at the university as the director of development for the UNC Institute of the Environment. He was hoping she had some sort of scouting report on Coach Roy Williams’ team.
“She will not give me anything resembling a scouting report,” Hill said with a laugh. “All she will say is Roy is serious about this game.”
Notes: To help with the celebration of homecoming week, WSSU will hold an open practice on Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the Gaines Center. This will give the fans and alumni in town to see the Rams…. The last time WSSU played in Chapel Hill was in November of 2004 when Coach Roy Williams was in his second season as the head coach of North Carolina. The Tar Heels went on to win the national championship that season…. After Friday’s exhibition with North Carolina, the Rams will put their focus on their season opener against UNC Pembroke. That game will take place on Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gaines Center.