SANFORD - The Central Carolina Community College basketball team plays many games each year, but perhaps none are any more special than the annual game with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill junior varsity team.
"It's just great," said CCCC Coach Doug Connor, noting that it's an honor to play against a program with such a long-standing and proud basketball tradition.
Last week, CCCC - a Division III member of the National Junior College Athletic Association - led by 10 points in the second half before losing to the host Tar Heels, 96-86, at the 21,750-seat Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
After the game, the CCCC team stayed at the Smith Center to watch the UNC varsity team play the University of Iowa.
"The atmosphere is unbelievable," said Connor, adding that his players are excited to play there.
These two programs have mutual admiration for one another, especially the relationship between Connor and Tar Heel JV Coach Hubert Davis. "I have a great relationship with Hubert Davis as a coach and friend," said Connor. "Their coaching staff treats us great."
Davis, who spent 12 seasons as a player in the National Basketball Association, speaks highly of the CCCC program. "I love playing CCCC because they are always well coached and very talented," he said. "We love having them at UNC, and at some point I'd like to return the favor and play CCCC on their home court."
Connor points out that it is a privilege to play the UNC JVs, as only a handful of junior colleges get to play the Tar Heel squad. "We play very hard together," said Connor.
"I think it is healthy competition," said Davis. "Both teams want to win, but what makes it fun is that both teams compete and play hard the right way."
CCCC Athletic Director Mike Neal says the game, which has become an annual event, is a reward for all of the academic and athletic work by the CCCC players. "Our athletes are talented and want to play on a big stage," said Neal. "The Smith Center is a huge stage for them. ... The venue is awesome. The staff is professional and accommodating. They know we are respectful and appreciative, and we get that back from them."
Ken Hoyle, CCCC's Vice President of Student Services, was among the Cougar faithful attending this year's game. "I think the fact that the UNC program looks forward to us returning year after year validates the type of quality program that CCCC has developed and continues to yearly maintain," said Hoyle. "It's obviously a big thrill to the players to get to play them, especially in the Smith Center, so it's a great motivator for our players, coaches, and administrators."
This year's CCCC team has won eight of its first 10 games. Connor said the UNC JV game will serve as a helpful game. "It definitely helps you prepare for everything because they're very talented and they make you play 40 minutes of basketball. They're so fundamentally sound," said Connor.
"I think we are a very, very good team," said Connor, who believes his team will be a contender for conference honors. "We work and prepare every day."
Hoyle had praise for Connor and his program. "I can't say enough about Coach Connor and the job he's done," said Hoyle. "He is the type of coach that is interested in the whole player and their development, not just when he's playing ball. He is such a good fit for us because Coach Connor is concerned about how his players perform athletically, how they carry themselves in public, and how they perform in their classes."
So what does Coach Davis -- who spent seven years with ESPN as a college basketball analyst before joining the UNC coaching staff -- think of this year's CCCC squad? "It is the best team we have played all year," said Davis. "They have a number of talented kids that will have an opportunity to play Division I basketball."
The Cougars' next home game will be at 3 p.m. Jan. 3 versus Virginia Western Community College.
For more information on this year's CCCC basketball program, visit the CCCC website at www.cccc.edu/sports.
Central Carolina Community College's Vice President of Student Services Ken Hoyle, Assistant Coach Brian Hurd, Player Marquise Richmond, Head Coach Doug Connor, Athletic Director Mike Neal, and Dean of Student Support Services Heather Willett were pictured at this year's game with the UNC JVs at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill.