Click here to read & listen to the entire interviews with Noel and Sanders on Tuesday from the Smith Center.
UNC (19-6, 10-4) goes after its fifth Senior Game victory in a row when Virginia (14-11, 7-7) comes to town for a 9 p.m. tip-off on Wednesday.
After losing three of four games in mid-January, Carolina has rebounded to win eight of nine and take hold of second-place in the ACC. The Tar Heels can’t afford to look past the Cavaliers, 72-68 winners earlier in Charlottesville, with No. 1 Duke waiting on Saturday.
Meanwhile, UVa desperately needs wins between now and the ACC Tournament in hopes of squeezing into the NCAA field.
But with plenty still on the line, the focus in Chapel Hill tomorrow will be on the seniors – especially Noel and Sanders.
“The time has just flown by,” Noel said. “It’s been an up and down ride, but it’s been fine. I’ve been very happy with my decision (to come to Carolina).”
Noel said his finest moment occurred during the final seconds of UNC’s national championship win over Illinois last April.
“Being on the floor when the clock hit 0:00 was the most memorable moment,” he said. “That was one of the biggest things – that Coach had so much faith in me to be actually on the floor when it was pressure time.”
Noel took over as the leader of Carolina’s young team to start the season, both by voice and example. He’s scored in double figures in 19 of 25 games, after having just 12 in his three previous years combined, while providing a consistent steadying influence on Williams’ most inexperienced team ever.
Originally committed to the Tar Heels to play football after a standout multi-sport prep career at Southern Durham, Noel announced just prior to his conference’s basketball tournament that he would rather walk on the UNC basketball team than accept a full scholarship to play wide receiver at Carolina.
“[The UNC football coaches] were very happy for me and my decision,” Noel said. “For the most part, they didn’t try to pressure me or anything like that.
Noel never wavered from the decision though many wondered if he had a more promising outlook as a pro athlete on the gridiron. However, during the transition between Williams and Matt Doherty, Noel said he wasn’t sure if the basketball scholarship Doherty had promised him would still be available with Williams as coach. That, he said, made him reconsider football. After all, John Bunting and assistant football coach Kenny Browning had told him he was welcome to join the team at any time.
“They always told me they have a jersey ready for me,” Noel said. “There was a point when I thought I would play football. Once the whole thing went down with Coach Doherty, I was like, ‘Oh man. Will I get shafted? Will I not get shafted and lose my scholarship?’ But I just prayed about it and let God take its course, and this is where He led me.”
Sanders, like most new UNC freshmen, came to school with high hopes. And although he was forced into early action during his first season, Sanders would leave his mark primarily on the practice floor working out more notable big men Sean May, Marvin Williams and Tyler Hansbrough.
“Both are very talented,” Sanders said when asked to compare May and Hansbrough. “Both have a variety of skills. Tyler is more intense than Sean May, as far as battling him for rebounds and trying to stop him from scoring. He’s pretty intense.
“You just have to go to practice and say you have to get Sean [May] better, Marvin [Williams] better; so we can reach our goals,” he continued. “That’s what everybody on the Blue Team did. I’ve had to work my way up to more playing time. But I don’t mind, because I’m a national champion. It’s OK with me.”
Yet to Sanders' credit, he has fulfilled, and perhaps even exceeded, Williams’ expectations for his contribution this year. Sanders has played in all 25 games at an average of 13.2 minutes per game, and shot 51 percent from the floor in averaging 2.7 points and 2.7 rebounds per contest. He’s blocked seven shots and made four steals.
Most importantly, Sanders and Noel will leave UNC proud of all they’ve accomplished, even though there remains more to do.
“Basically everything,” Sanders said. “Just being comfortable out there on the floor, defending and rebounding – I’m proud of that.”