NCAA FINAL FOUR
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 10 Syracuse
When: 8:49 p.m. tonight
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas
Last summer, 2012 Flowery Branch High graduate Kanler Coker made a switch from playing football for the University of North Carolina to playing basketball for the Tar Heels.
This weekend, he’s taking in the Final Four as a member of the only No. 1 seed left in the NCAA Tournament.
In December, the Tar Heels played for the ACC Football Championship, losing to the Clemson Tigers.
On March 12, the Tar Heels basketball team made a run and took the ACC Championship with a win over Virginia.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Coker said. “That’s definitely one of the main things. Wherever we go, we know how to have fun. We have some jokesters, but the run has been awesome. Winning the ACC Tournament is something I’ve never really even dreamed of. Making this Final Four trip and, hopefully playing and winning two more games, this has been incredible.”
Coker said the atmosphere seems to just keep building with each game the Tar Heels win. With the first and second round of the NCAA Tournament being in Raleigh, North Carolina for the Heels, it was practically a home game both nights out.
“Being in North Carolina, we had a ton of fans there,” Coker said. “Both games, I felt like the place was full of Carolina blue, which never hurts anything.”
Then, the team moved on to Philadelphia and played at the Wells Fargo Center, home of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers.
There, Coker experienced a moment he’ll never forget.
“The Wells Fargo Center was really packed out,” he said. “It was really cool to experience playing in that arena. Getting in the game in the Sweet 16 game against Indiana is something I’ll be able to tell my grandkids about. It was something that I was super thankful and grateful to get out on the court. It was a surreal moment.”
The Tar Heels dispatched the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the Elite Eight, 88-74, on Sunday and sent North Carolina on to the Final Four where they’ll face Syracuse tonight in Houston.
Coker said the team was greeted by members of each branch of the military holding American flags as they got of the plane in Texas.
“We got off the plane and walked 100 yards through them and shook their hands,” Coker said. “They had cool planes, helicopters and Humvees around. It reminded us how thankful and grateful we should be to be able to play because they sacrifice their lives to make our country what it is. That was awesome, especially to shake the soldiers’ hands and have a word with them.”
After that, the Tar Heels were greeted at their hotel by the cheerleaders, band and fans.
Then, on Thursday night, they went to the welcoming ceremony and mingled with players and coaches from the other three Final Four schools — Syracuse, Villanova and Oklahoma.
“We came for a business trip, but being two days before the game, I saw a bunch of guys from different teams making conversation,” Coker said. “A lot of these guys know each other from AAU ball, but that was cool. Even the coaches were talking.”
The former Hall County high school standout has been seen in photos and videos from the locker room playing Pac-Man with teammate Luke Maye.
“They had Pac-Man and Galaga in the locker room,” Coker said. “We’re going to take advantage of what they give us. But, come down to game time, we will be more like the business mindset.”
Though they are on a “business trip,” Coker said Coach Roy Williams, who is making his eighth appearance in the Final Four as a coach, told the team to have a good time and take it all in. “He told us, ‘There’s nothing like it.”
Coker said the way Williams has the team preparing has not changed since the regular season, even though the Tar Heels have faced Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange twice this season.
“We do our scouting report and everything the same. Nothing really changes,” Coker said. “Coach still coaches us and he has a game plan. It’s our job to stick with it and play the way he wants us to.”
Back in the summer, Coker made the decision to give up a football scholarship in Chapel Hill and put on his basketball sneakers in honor of his late brother Keaton. Keaton lost his battle with brain cancer in July of 2014.
Kanler said his dad, Miles, told him all the time that Keaton was his biggest fan and loved watching him play.
“Keaton went to so many of my basketball games growing up,” Kanler said. “I played a ton of AAU and summer ball growing up. He’s been in different parts of the country and in different gyms. We’d have three or four games a day and he’d be at all of them.”
Though Keaton isn’t able to be in Houston to witness his brother dress in Carolina blue and take the stage in the Final Four, their mom (Sharon), dad, brother (Karson) and sister-in-law (Calah) will be.
“Keaton is in better hands. For Keaton, the Final Four, nothing on this earth can compare to what he’s getting to experience right now,” Coker said. “I think he’d be really excited and happy for me.
“Well, I don’t think it. I know it. He’d be really happy and excited for me.”