From Murphy to Manteo and all parts in between, children in North Carolina will go to their driveways in the weeks and years to come and they’ll stand to the left of the basket, a tie game in their imaginations, and they’ll try to recreate what Luke Maye did on Sunday.
From Murphy to Manteo, they’ll be talking about North Carolina’s 75-73 victory against Kentucky in the South Regional championship game for a long, long time to come – maybe for as long as the Tar Heels ever play basketball.
They’ll talk about a game that had a little bit of everything – floor slaps and screams, momentum swings and monumental shots, none of them more important than the one Maye, the Tar Heels sophomore reserve turned March hero, forever, made inside of the final second, his team’s season hanging in the balance.
Moments after Kentucky’s Malik Monk improbably tied the score at 73 with a long, contested 3-pointer, Maye, the Tar Heels’ sophomore forward, made the shot of his life: a jumper from the left side, just inside the 3-point line, with three-tenths of a second left.
“I just kind of stepped back and he gave me the ball,” Maye said, “and I just shot it. And luckily it went in. It was a great feeling.”
The officials took a look at it, just to see whether it was a 3-pointer or a two. After determining that Maye was inside theline, Kentucky (32-6) had three-tenths of a second left. But the Wildcats’ in-bounds pass sailed the length of the court and went out of bounds.
Seconds later, UNC’s celebration began. The victory sends the Tar Heels, the top seed in the South Region, to the Final Four for the 20th time. They will play against Oregon, which emerged from the Midwest Region with a victory against Kansas, on Saturday night in a national semifinal in Glendale, Ariz.
Maye, who was so instrumental in UNC’s 92-80 victory against Butler on Friday night in the regional semifinal, again played a starring role on Sunday. He finished with 17 points in 20 minutes off the bench, and he made six of his nine attempts from the field.
In back-to-back games Maye scored more points in college than he ever had before. Entering the South Regional semifinals on Friday, Maye had never scored more than 13 points in a college game. He scored 16 against Bulter on Friday and then 17 on Sunday.
The final two are the ones everyone will remember – the shot that will be replayed over and over, and reenacted in parks and playgrounds and driveways for weeks and months and maybe years to come. Maye’s last-second shot was just a part of it, though.
The Tar Heels (31-7) trailed by five points with five minutes to play, and UNC coach Roy Williams then called a timeout. Not long ago, he said he’d only call those when he dislikes the look on his players’ faces, and he didn’t like their expressions when Kentucky led 64-59 with about five minutes remaining.
From there UNC scored 12 consecutive points. Theo Pinson, a junior forward, made four free throws during that stretch, and Joel Berry, a junior guard, made an important driving shot off the backboard. Berry, hobbled throughout, played through ankle pain and finished with 11 points.
UNC’s lead grew as large as seven with 54 seconds to play. By then it looked like the Tar Heels might escape in comfort. Not a chance, though.
Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox made a 3-pointer to cut UNC’s lead to four, and Monk, who scored 47 points against UNC the first time these teams played, back in Kentucky’s 103-100 victory on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas, made a 3 of own to cut Kentucky’s deficit to 71-70 with 39 seconds remaining.
Junior forward Justin Jackson, who led UNC with 19 points, made a layup on the other end to give the Tar Heels a three-point lead with 34 seconds remaining. And that set up Monk, again. His 3-pointer sent the Kentucky fans here into a state of delirium, and the shot tied the score at 73 with nine seconds left.
The Tar Heels didn’t take a timeout then. There was no diagramming of a last-second play, no time to discuss strategy. Williams simply let his players play.
“We always say if it's more than six seconds, ‘Attack,’ we're going to attack, we're not going to call a time-out,” Williams said. “It was 7.2, I think, when they scored and I was just screaming ‘go, go, go.’ And Theo goes down the court and finds Luke, and Luke made a big-time shot.”
Pinson brought the ball up the court – eight seconds left, seven, six … – and soon enough Maye had it in his hands, time running out. He hesitated for a quick second and then jumped and released.
The ball rotated toward the basket for a couple of moments as the FedEx Forum was quiet, almost silent. Then the shot fell in, and they’ll be talking about it for a long, long time to come.