Eric Taylor and Andrew Dean walked into the locker room at North Wilkes High School in Hays, N.C., and tried not to look awestruck in front of their new teammates.

There was Justin Knox, from the University of North Carolina. There was Tracy Smith and Javier Gonzalez from North Carolina State. And there was all-Atlantic Coast Conference player Kyle Singler, from Duke, and his fellow Blue Devil, ACC Player of the Year, and first team All-American Nolan Smith.

Taylor and Dean played their college basketball at the University of Maine at Farmington. The North Atlantic Conference and the ACC are on opposite ends of the college basketball universe.
“It was,” Taylor said, “a little intimidating.”

“The things they can do on a basketball court are incredible,” Dean added. “Obviously, their athletic ability and work ethic are amazing.”

For 33 years, Mike Sumner has organized the ACC Barnstorming Tour. Each spring, Sumner puts together a team made up mostly of players who have just completed their college basketball careers at ACC schools, and they play six to 10 games around the Carolinas and Virginia. A portion of the proceeds from each game are donated to the Ronald McDonald House, and a portion benefits the hosting high schools.

Sumner’s son, Pet, recently finished his freshman season with the University of Maine at Farmington basketball team. That’s where Sumner saw Taylor and Dean play ball, and when a couple spots were open for this year’s tour, he invited the Beavers to play.

“I’ve always liked to get guys from small schools, and the next four years, I’m getting guys from Farmington,” said Sumner, who graduated from UNC in 1978 and was a suitemate of basketball star Phil Ford while in school.

Dean and Taylor had no reason to be intimidated. Singler was the first to introduce himself, and it didn’t take long for the UMF duo to fit in. Both are good basketball players at the Division III level.
An Oakland native, Taylor averaged 17.1 points and 8.6 rebounds for the Beavers this season and was a two-time all-NAC first team selection. Dean, of Gorham, averaged 11.1 points per game and shot 41 percent from 3-point range.

In his first game with the ACC players, Taylor scored 18 points and averaged 13 with the team. Dean was one of the team’s top shooters.

“Nolan told me after the third game that E.T. (Taylor) could play Division I ball. He’s just all heart,” Sumner said. “Deano made something like 20 of 30 3-pointers. It was automatic.”

Taylor didn’t hear of Smith’s praise until he returned home.

“Wow. That’s a real good feeling, coming from him,” Taylor said.

On the next to last stop of the tour, April 12 in Asheboro, N.C., Dean put on what might’ve been the highlight of the entire week. Each game included a 3-point shootout and a slam dunk contest. Dean participated in the 3-point shootout that night, and Taylor stretched and watched.

“All of a sudden he’s made five or six in a row,” Taylor said. “When he made the eighth, I stood up, and when he made nine and 10, the crowd went crazy. All the ACC players jumped up and gave him high fives.”

Singler, an excellent shooter in his own right, had to follow Dean’s act. Taylor and Dean don’t recall how many Singler made, but it wasn’t a perfect 10.

“When I happened to make all 10, Kyle looked at Eric and was like, ‘Wow.’ ” Dean said.

Taylor and Dean signed autographs after games and told fans who had never heard of them or their school about UMF. They got to tour the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, where they met current Tar Heels Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller. They played with some of the best college basketball players in the country. They had the time of their hoops-playing lives.

“More than anything else, they represented their school well,” Sumner said.

Playing on the ACC Barnstorming Tour gave Taylor the closure he didn’t get at UMF, where he was hindered by a broken hand late in the season.

“I was kind of disappointed to go out like that,” Taylor said, “but this was nice.”

Added Dean: “It was definitely an interesting experience, playing with those guys.”

Nobody would deny the difference in talent between the ACC and UMF. But for a week, Taylor and Dean proved when you hustle and work hard, in small doses, the gap can be a crack, not a canyon.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242
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