Luke Maye pumps his fist after game-winning jumper shortly before buzzer broke tie with Kentucky and sent North Carolina to Final Four for a second straight season. (Photo by Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer)
In Chapel Hill, and in the hearts of North Carolina fans worldwide, March 26 may very well be Maye Day for the foreseeable future.
Luke Maye, the sophomore forward who rose to the occasion with his first career double-double in the Tar Heels' South Regional semifinal win over Butler Friday evening, reprised his clutch role with a moment that will not soon be forgotten; his long jumper from just inside the left wing with three-tenths of a second remaining serving as the latest entry into the annals of March Madness, the final basket in a 75-73 victory over the Kentucky Wildcats inside Memphis' FedEx Forum that sent UNC to a second straight Final Four.
In an ironic twist of fate, Maye's game-winner was preceded by a dramatic three-pointer by Kentucky's Malik Monk to tie the score at 73 apiece with ten seconds to go, evoking memories of last season's classic national championship game between UNC and Villanova, only the roles were reversed.
"They made a big three," said Maye as he recounted the decisive possession. "Monk hit it over my hand and then Theo (Pinson) just drove down court and was penetrating towards the basket and kind of picked my man a little bit. I stepped back, he gave me the ball and I just shot it, and luckily, it went in."
Maye's 17 points were second only to the 19 recorded by Justin Jackson as the Tar Heels (31-7) reached the national semifinals for a record 20th time in program history. UNC will face Oregon at University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona Saturday evening following the conclusion of the first Final Four matchup, which pits East Regional champion South Carolina against West Regional winner Gonzaga.
UNC overcame a shaky first half, one in which point guard Joel Berry II appeared to turn his left ankle in the opening minutes (he would return several minutes later) and also one where Theo Pinson's defensive prowess was sidelined by two quick personal fouls, to fend off the Wildcats (32-6) throughout the opening stanza, taking a 38-33 lead to the locker room. Kentucky would fire off six straight points in the first two minutes and 25 seconds, taking their first lead after a pair of Bam Adebayo free throws put the No. 2 seed ahead by a score of 39-38. But the Tar Heels punched back with a 9-2 run to forge a six-point lead with seven minutes gone in the final stanza. The two powerhouses exchanged matching haymakers as the stretch run approached, with Kentucky getting eight points from reserve forward Isaac Humphries as part of a key 10-2 run that saw UNC go cold from the floor, using the rally to stake a 64-59 advantage with just over five minutes on the clock and prompting a rare timeout from head coach Roy Williams.
"I was trying to yell positive messages," said Williams of his coaching while the Tar Heels fell behind. "I said in the Arkansas game, we were down five and this is going to help us because we're going to come back. We've got the same situation. You've shown that you can do this, so I tried to be really positive with them at that point. They reacted admirably, to say the least."
In the four minutes and nine seconds following Williams' timeout, UNC ripped off a 12-0 run; the exact same margin by which they closed out their second-round win over Arkansas one week ago, to own a 71-64 cushion after a pair of Pinson free throws with 54 seconds to play. But Kentucky would not go away, as a De'Aaron Fox three-pointer on the ensuing possession trimmed the lead to four points.
Electing not to foul, head coach John Calipari trusted his defense, and was rewarded when the Wildcats forced a five-second violation on Kennedy Meeks' inbounds attempt to set up the first of two threes in the final minute by Monk, who lit up the Tar Heels for 47 points in Kentucky's regular-season win over UNC in December. With that, the lead was just one slim point, but UNC quickly got it back to three when Jackson broke away from the Kentucky defense with a lay-in to make the score 73-70 with 34 ticks on the clock.
The Tar Heels avenged the turnover from two possessions prior when Maye stripped Adebayo, forcing a held ball and retaining the basketball seconds later. Immediately following the inbounds, Monk fouled Jackson, sending the junior to the foul line for a one-and-one. Jackson, a 74 percent shooter at the charity stripe, missed the shot off the back rim, leaving the door open for Kentucky to tie the game, which they did as Isaiah Briscoe fed Monk for a contested three just off the top of the key. Opting not to call a timeout, Williams let his team play, with Pinson driving down the floor before calmly dishing to Maye for what turned out to be the coup de grace.
A Calipari timeout with three-tenths of a second to play left the Wildcats with one last hope for a miracle, but Derek Willis' home run pass sailed over the baseline and out of bounds, handing the ball back to the Tar Heels and sending Kentucky home with a bitter regional final loss on the 25th anniversary weekend of Christian Laettner's epic catch-and-shoot jumper to send Duke to the 1992 Final Four at the Wildcats' expense.
In addition to Jackson and Maye, Berry battled his way to 11 points amid his aforementioned ankle injury. Four Kentucky players saw double digits on the scoreboard, led by Adebayo, who posted 13 points in a game certain to enter the history books as a classic, and one in which UNC earned a return ticket to the scene of their heartbreak last April thanks to the heroics of a sixth man who fought through his struggles and achieved his own personal redemption.
"There's no success without struggle," said Jackson of Maye's payoff. "That's what kept us going over the summer, and I think Luke is a testament of that. I don't think Luke has put together two games like this all season, and it just shows with hard work you can continue to play and you can be a great player. That's kind of what the background of that is, and I'm happy for this guy."