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North Carolina’s first visit to Spokane a can’t-miss opportunity for Gonzaga, Tar Heel fans alike

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 18, 2019

North Carolina super fan Melissa Withers of Post Falls holds up the basketball the Tar Heels signed for her and her husband David Smith, on right, before Wednesday’s game with Gonzaga  at the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
North Carolina super fan Melissa Withers of Post Falls holds up the basketball the Tar Heels signed for her and her husband David Smith, on right, before Wednesday’s game with Gonzaga at the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Justin Reed The Spokesman-Review

Section 118 was bathed in navy, red and white in the Kennel on Wednesday, except for a splotch of Carolina Blue in Row 18.

There sat Melissa Withers and her husband, David Smith, of Post Falls, decked out in North Carolina colors.

Right before tipoff, Withers was gifted a basketball signed by every player and head coach Roy Williams.

Neither she or her husband knew why, except that someone at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Northwest, where Withers works, told Smith that they were going to receive a signed basketball and the UNC staff needed to know their section and seats.

For Withers, who considers herself the biggest Tar Heels fan in the world, it was the cherry on top of a great night in the Kennel.

It wasn’t until recently that she knew she would see her Tar Heels in Spokane. When the schedule was announced, she knew she had to get to the game in the Kennel, but as Thanksgiving approached, she wasn’t sure if that dream would come to fruition.

“I said, ‘We’re going’ (when the schedule came out), like I would die for tickets. I would die for tickets. I would die for tickets,” she said.

But she had to wait until Thanksgiving morning before she could celebrate.

Smith put the tickets into a Thanksgiving card for his wife to surprise her.

“When I opened them, there were the tickets. ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I am going to that game, I can’t believe it,’ ” she said as she flashed her ticket stubs.

She got to meet the most famous Bulldog of all, Spike the mascot.

“The first person we saw was the Gonzaga Bulldog, and we got a picture with the Bulldog,” she said.

Smith plays on a 65-plus softball league within Spokane County Parks and Recreation. One of his friends has GU season tickets, and he discussed a few times what it would mean to Withers to go.

Smith has gifted his friend tickets to multiple Spokane Indians games in the past, so he hoped that connection would prove bountiful.

That it did.

Withers has a long history with North Carolina basketball and with other programs within the state.

Her two claims to fame center around basketball players who played their college ball in North Carolina.

The first is former Zags killer and current NBA player Steph Curry. Withers’ background as a nurse had her working in the Davidson College Center. She said she saw Curry often for minor elements and sicknesses, but one instance stood out more than the others.

The same year Curry and 10th-seeded Davidson knocked off the seventh-seeded Bulldogs, Withers gave Curry a shot, but she can’t remember if it was some sort of vaccine or antibiotic.

She also was lucky enough to meet Michael Jordan in person, but in the same conversation, her then 5-year-old daughter puked on his shoes.

Bucket list item no more

Born in Chapel Hill, Jake Guild was sure to be a Tar Heels fan. His mother works for UNC, so Guild was supposed to be another Tar Heel.

Except he wasn’t.

Since 1999, when the label of Cinderella still was freshly attached, Guild was immediately enamored with the Zags, even with the Dean Smith Center in his backyard.

It was the Zags and their improbable run to the Elite Eight that grabbed his 8-year-old fandom, and it hasn’t wavered since.

He got his dad hooked on the Zags, and they find themselves staying up until 3 in the morning watching them.

His wardrobe has been packed with GU attire for two decades. He and his dad have seen the Zags in person a few times, most notably against Duke in 2007 in Madison Square Garden and most recently last season when GU traveled to Chapel Hill.

He even has a Gonzaga Prep Bullpups sweatshirt.

But the dream goal was the Kennel, and after 8 hours on a plane, the two made it to Spokane to see the Bulldogs battle their hometown team.

Jake used Reddit’s college basketball subreddit to track down someone who had friends with season tickets.

After locking down tickets, their bucket list item was about to be crossed off.

The two have experience Spokane in multiple ways, trekking out to Northern Quest, marauding around downtown and going to Anthony’s for dinner.

“It has been a great experience. We got to see a lot of the students outside. There are a lot of good characters out there,” Jake said.

Pulling for both sides

Is it possible to be both a Bulldogs fan and Tar Heels fan?

For Alec Carpenter, that has been his prerogative since he graduated from UNC and GU.

He grew up in North Carolina and graduated with his bachelor’s from UNC in 1991. He followed that up with a law degree from GU in 1995.

Carpenter wanted to get away from North Carolina after 1991, ending up more than 2,500 miles away in the Pacific Northwest.

“I just looked at schools all across the country and (Spokane) was a different place to live,” he said. “It was a really good school, good education. And I enjoyed my three years in Spokane.”

In the 2017 national championship game, Carpenter saw it as a win-win for himself.

With some GU tipoffs scheduled for 11 p.m. or midnight North Carolina time, Carpenter uses his DVR to record all Zags games and watches them the next day.

Carpenter was in Spokane recently, so he took the opportunity to see friends and get out on the water.

“I was in Spokane two months ago with classmates and we went to the Coeur d’Alene River to fish and to talk basketball,” Carpenter said.

He never made a game in the old Kennel, the Martin Centre, but he is thrilled with the growth and improvement of not just the basketball team, but campus as well.

“It has been amazing to watch the growth, to watch them do better and better and then consistently be a top-10 powerhouse just like UNC,” he said. “And the new arena that’s been built since I was there it has been terrific. I’ve really been proud of the school and I know it’s exciting for students and for the people in Spokane.”

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