The sight of Luke Maye walking out of a room, down a hallway, had Justin Jackson calling for security on Tuesday afternoon. Jackson, the North Carolina junior forward and ACC Player of the Year, seemed worried that Maye might be mobbed again, even there in the bowels of the Smith Center.
“He’s big-time now,” Jackson said with a laugh, amused at the running joke that Maye might need a bodyguard or two. “I feel like we need some security around campus. But we make fun of him all the time, that’s just what we do. But deep down we’re all extremely happy and proud of him.
“It’s nothing that we’re surprised of. But I mean, we’re all extremely happy for him.”
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By then nearly 48 hours had passed since Maye made The Shot – the 18-foot jumper from the left wing to give the Tar Heels a 75-73 victory on Sunday against Kentucky in the South Regional championship game. There were three-tenths of a second remaining when Maye’s shot fell through, and it sent UNC to the Final Four for the 20th time.
The next morning, early Monday, Maye walked into his 8 a.m. class, Business 101 – a financial accounting course. When he arrived, one of his classmates across the room began clapping. And then another person began clapping. And then, Maye said, “It kind of spread.”
It wasn’t long before the clapping turned into a full ovation. The rest of his Monday – and Tuesday – wasn’t any less celebratory. People on campus stopped him for pictures. He heard a lot of “good shot, great shot,” Maye said, and even his teammates had some fun with him in their text messaging group, which is aptly titled “Redemption.”
That’s the name Jackson came up with over the summer, months after the Tar Heels ended last season with a 77-74 defeat against Villanova in the national championship game. UNC lost that night in perhaps the most debilitating way imaginable: on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, just 4.7 seconds after Marcus Paige had made a 3 of his own, on an incredible shot, to tie the game.
Since then, the idea of redemption has driven the Tar Heels. Now they’ll head to the Final Four with an opportunity to make it a reality, at last, and they have that chance thanks in no small part to Maye. He entered the South Regional in Memphis, Tenn., last week as an unheralded but important role player. He left something of a household name, and the South’s Most Outstanding Player.
Maye made the shot at the end against Kentucky, and that’s what will endure. But he also averaged 16.5 points in victories against Butler and Kentucky (he’d scored 33 points, combined, in UNC’s previous six games) and made 63.1 percent of attempts from the field. Known for his rebounding, he produced there, too, and averaged 8.5 rebounds in the two games in Memphis.
The Tar Heels left for Arizona, and the Final Four, on Tuesday. When they greet reporters there on Thursday, two days before their game against Oregon in a national semifinal, Maye will undoubtedly be among the national stories entering the weekend. Here’s a player, after all, who before Sunday might have been best known for a surprising, authoritative dunk against N.C. State. Perhaps that was a sign.
Roy Williams, the UNC coach, tried to explain on Tuesday how this was possible – how Maye, the team’s eighth-leading scorer, even after that outburst last weekend, could go from spot duty to this. Maye plays an average of less than 15 minutes per game, and before last Friday, he’d never scored more than 13 points in any of his first 65 college games.
As he usually does, Williams quickly identified a historical parallel.
“I’ll never forget, 1981, Final Four semifinals, and Al Wood made about three or four in a row,” Williams said. “Coach Smith, he didn’t very often ask me any questions, I think he was just speaking out loud, I almost never answered him. But he said, ‘Do you think I should take Al out?’
“I said I’d wait until he misses one. He made three more in a row and missed one, and coach Smith tapped me on the knee and said, ‘Good job.’ So I felt like I had won the lottery.”
Williams must have felt something similar on the sideline on Sunday, watching Maye prove himself on a court filled with former five-star high school prospects and future NBA millionaires. Kentucky in recent years has come to epitomize the “bus stop” nature of college basketball, as Williams sometimes calls it, with players sticking around for one year before departing for the NBA.
Maye, meanwhile, epitomizes something else. His is the story of an overlooked prospect who worked his way in position to contribute. When he was recruiting Maye, Williams didn’t even have a scholarship to offer, at first. He told Maye he’d have to walk on, and then wait for a scholarship to open his sophomore year. As it turned out a scholarship opened before Maye arrived.
Williams repeated the story again on Tuesday of how he broke the news. He said he called Maye and told him to ask his parents for $1,000 for a trip to the beach. Williams, after all, was saving them $25,000 in tuition by putting Maye on a basketball scholarship. Never mind the fact that it might be difficult for a high school senior to spend that kind of cash on a weekend beach trip.
“I’d probably take my family down there,” Maye said on Tuesday, asked how he might have spent that kind of money if his parents had agreed with Williams and given it to him. “And we love playing putt-putt, so I’d spend a lot of it on putt-putt.”
Basketball remains Maye’s most ardent sporting passion. He grew up attending Williams’ basketball camps at UNC, and Williams began to take notice. The summer after Maye’s freshman year of high school Williams said he told Maye’s father, Mark, a former UNC quarterback, that Luke had a chance to play in the ACC, and at UNC.
Williams waited to see how Maye developed during his years at Hough High in Huntersville, just north of Charlotte. By the time Maye was a junior there, Williams believed Maye could indeed play at UNC. But nobody could have foreseen Maye’s meteoric rise in Memphis. Nobody except for, well, maybe Maye.
“Everyone who’s been close to me, and stuck by me, knew I could play at this level,” Maye said on Tuesday. “And I had the most confidence out of anybody, and I really wanted to prove everybody wrong. And I feel like I just need to keep getting better.”
That simple approach has driven Maye. After UNC’s senior night victory against Syracuse during his freshman year, Maye went back out onto the court long after the game ended, past midnight, for a late-night shooting session. His dad rebounded for him. More than a month later, after last season ended, Maye told Williams he wanted to work harder than anyone else on the team over the summer.
Some players might say such things. Maye put his words into practice.
He worked on his own, but also often accompanied Jackson during his daily shooting sessions at the Smith Center, where Chase Bengel, the team’s head manager, rebounded for the both of them and helped them through their drills. Afterward, they’d all grab some late-night dinner at Old Chicago, a Franklin Street pizza place where the prices drop after 10 p.m.
All season long, Maye watched how those sessions paid off for Jackson, who broke UNC’s single-season record for 3-pointers in a season. And then, last weekend, Jackson saw how that work in the summer paid off for Maye, finally – and perhaps at the most unlikely of times. Since, Maye has experienced a bit of a whirlwind.
There were so many media requests for him on Tuesday that UNC made him available at the team’s pre-Final Four press conference. And then there have been all the texts and calls and well-wishes. Maye said he’s heard from “probably a couple hundred” people, many of them from around his hometown of Huntersville.
He even heard from Christian Laettner, in an indirect way. Laettner on Twitter praised Maye for his shot, and noted the kinship between players in No. 32 jerseys who beat Kentucky at the buzzer in a regional final. Maye wears No. 32. And so did Laettner when he made one of the great shots in college basketball history, his turnaround in the lane to send Duke to the Final Four in 1992.
Maye’s teammates alerted him to the Laettner tweet. They discussed it in the team’s text message group. Maye said it was “pretty cool,” and the group text discussion also included a replay of a clip of Maye’s shot. In the text message thread, Maye said, Theo Pinson was “talking about how he set it up and everything,” and Pinson did drive the lane and draw the defense before passing to Maye.
And then Maye did the rest. Since, classmates have asked for pictures. People walking by have congratulated him, over and over. His teammates, Maye said, “keep bringing it up.” He said it hadn’t quite set in yet, the magnitude of the moment. There will be time one day for him to put Sunday into perspective, and Maye said he wants to try to remain humble.
That’s a challenge by itself, with his teammates razzing him about needing security, telling him he’s big-time, talking about the shot, again and again, in the group text. Maye said his mom expressed some fears about how he might feel the pressure entering this weekend at the Final Four. He told her he wouldn’t. By Tuesday he’d figured out his response to his teammates talking about the shot, too.
“I’m like, all right,” he said. “It’s time to focus on Oregon.”
No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 7 South Carolina
When: 6:09 p.m. Saturday
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 3 Oregon
When: Approx. 8:50 p.m. Saturday
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.