Phoenix lands North Carolina for first men’s basketball game in new building
ELON — Consider it a grand opening in the works for the Schar Center.
Elon has secured a star attraction for its first men’s basketball game next season in the new arena, announcing Monday that powerful North Carolina, one of the elites, has been booked to play there against the Phoenix.
The Tar Heels will visit Nov. 9, a Friday night that serves as Elon’s season opener.
“It’s going to be a major event for Elon and Alamance County,” Elon coach Matt Matheny said. “It’s a first-class facility, and to be able to open those doors and play a program like North Carolina, it tips it off the right way. It’s like taking a champagne bottle and christening the boat.”
It also makes for a doubleheader of sorts to launch the new building, with Elon’s women’s team scheduled to meet North Carolina there that week three nights earlier.
Elon athletics director Dave Blank said the men’s teams for the Phoenix and Tar Heels have signed a three-game deal. That agreement, after the matchup at Elon, sends the Phoenix to the Smith Center in Chapel Hill during the following two seasons, 2019-20 and 2020-21.
“For the University of North Carolina to step up to this and join us in the opening of the facility and being a part of our history will be great,” Blank said. “We’re really grateful this has come together.
“It’s important to our campus. When you open a structure like this, you want people to experience it. A game of this magnitude will bring lots of people out to see the building. But I’m also very happy for our basketball players, getting a chance to play a game of this importance on our campus, and just that experience that will come with it for them. I think it’s a win-win and we look forward to having them here.”
Construction is nearing completion at the Schar Center, the multi-use convocation facility on campus that’s already sparkling, and will replace venerable Alumni Gym as Elon’s home for basketball and volleyball.
The new arena, long a vision at Elon and likewise a topic of hopeful discussion among school and athletics department leaders for perhaps 20 years, will seat 5,100 — more than triple the size of Alumni Gym’s space for 1,607 — and has been expected to be finished at a cost ranging from $40 million to $50 million.
Now, Elon of the Colonial Athletic Association has landed an Atlantic Coast Conference headliner in North Carolina as its first men’s opponent, a reeling in of one of college basketball’s biggest fishes, given the Tar Heels’ pedigree of six NCAA championships and status as royalty in the sport.
So Monday contained a distinct sense of accomplishment amid the excitement around Elon, where North Carolina alums Jack Wooten and J.B. Tanner, who played under coach Roy Williams for the Tar Heels, are assistants on Matheny’s coaching staff. These teams haven’t met on a basketball court since December 2011.
Blank called the announcement the product of “a team effort,” and credited Matheny and Williams in particular for making the possibility of a Tar Heels’ visit to Elon become a scheduling reality. Matheny said at least one year’s worth of planning and discussions were part of the process.
“Just thrilled that North Carolina was willing to work with us and open up the arena,” Matheny said.
“This situation has been talked about for quite a while,” Blank said. “We just weren’t sure whether it was going to come together or not, which is understandable, because coaches have to find a way to how they want to structure their schedule. We’re just glad and fortunate this was able to work out. We appreciate it.”
Across recent seasons, South Carolina (in 2011-12) and Massachusetts (in 2013-14) stand out as the most recognizable men’s teams that have participated in non-league games at Elon. The Phoenix ambushed South Carolina and pulled off an upset victory, while Massachusetts arrived with a Top 20 national ranking and swagger in excess.
North Carolina, of course, delivers a significantly increased level of prominence.
And with proven starters such as Luke Maye and Kenny Williams returning — Cameron Johnson could be back, too — and high school All-American recruits Nassir Little and Coby White joining the fold, the Tar Heels figure to enter Elon’s Schar Center in November owning a lofty ranking and considerable expectations, per usual.
North Carolina opens next season Nov. 6 at Wofford, three nights prior to playing at Elon. It marks the first time in 32 years that the Tar Heels will start a season with back-to-back games on the road. Wofford will be embarking on its second year in the still-new Richardson Indoor Stadium.
Historically, and throughout Williams’ 15 seasons in charge, North Carolina regularly has shown a willingness to be accommodating in this manner. The Tar Heels have opened new basketball arenas at Appalachian State and UNC Asheville this century, have visited UNC Greensboro at the Greensboro Coliseum and will play at UNC Wilmington in the 2019-2020 season.
“I’m very thankful for Coach Williams to be willing to do that,” Matheny said, from Elon’s perspective. “Scheduling, it’s so hard, and for him to be willing to sacrifice a game to help us open up the facility just says a lot about him and their program.”
Elon’s opener for the 2018-19 season, with the Phoenix venturing forward into the future in a new building, also offers a connection to the program’s proud past, when the school’s teams for so long were nicknamed the Fighting Christians while competing in lower classifications.
Alumni Gym was dedicated Jan. 14, 1950, and during the seasons that bookended that beginning, 1949-50 and 1950-51, Elon played host to North Carolina in a pair of openers.
Now, seven decades later, the Tar Heels will be coming back, this time to the Schar Center, to ring in Elon’s next era of basketball.
“It’s great stuff and we’re excited about the opportunity,” Blank said.
“To be able to play in such a beautiful facility,” Matheny said, “and to get to open up with the game against North Carolina, it’s just an incredible step forward for our program and our university.”