North Carolina has won 2,204 men’s basketball games, and counting, but it had been 27 years, since it won an NCAA tournament game the way it did on Sunday against Kentucky.
Luke Maye, the reserve sophomore forward, made an 18-footer from the left wing with three-tenths of a second remaining. The shot gave the Tar Heels a 75-73 victory, and it sent them to the Final Four for the 20th time.
So where does it rank? In UNC’s long, celebrated basketball history, where does Maye’s shot belong in the conversation of the Tar Heels’ greatest March moments? The short answer: It’s up there. And it’s up there for a couple of reasons: One, the magnitude of moment speaks for itself. Two, it was a rare shot.
Before Sunday, it had been 27 years since UNC won in the NCAA tournament with a shot in the final second. People still talk about Rick Fox’s shot off the backboard against No. 1 seed Oklahoma in 1990, just like 27 years from now they’ll remember what Maye did.
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Maye entered the NCAA tournament often overlooked, an important but unheralded role player for the Tar Heels. He left the South Regional in Memphis, Tenn., having joined one of the most prestigious fraternities at UNC: the one whose membership requires some March basketball heroics.
Marcus Paige is a member, even though the Tar Heels lost in the national championship game a season ago. So is Fox. So is Michael Jordan, for obvious reasons. They all have special jackets (or at least they do in the imaginary version of this fraternity). And now Maye is having his measurements done.
There are some rules for admission into this club:
First, we’re talking NCAA tournament shots here. Ones in the regular-season and the ACC tournament don’t qualify. And, second, the shot must have come in the final 10 seconds. Unless you’re Michael Jordan and you just gave Dean Smith his first national championship.
So here we go, The Fraternal Order of The Shot: UNC NCAA Tournament Chapter (or, if you’re not enjoying this little metaphor, a look at the club Maye joined on Sunday):
▪ Marcus Paige, 2016: UNC didn’t win the national championship game a season ago against Villanova, but if the Tar Heels had won, then Paige’s off-balance, double-clutching 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left might have gone down as the greatest shot in school history. It still has its place, though.
▪ Rick Fox, 1990: Before Sunday, Fox’s shot against Oklahoma was the last time any UNC player had made a shot in the final seconds to win an NCAA tournament game. Fox went off the backboard, at the buzzer, to give UNC a 79-77 win over No. 1 seed Oklahoma and send UNC to the Sweet 16.
▪ Kenny Smith, 1985: His breakaway dunk in the final seconds gave UNC a 60-58 second-round victory against Notre Dame. The Tar Heels, the second seed in the Southeast Region, played this game on Notre Dame’s home court in South Bend, Ind.
▪ Michael Jordan, 1982: Then known as Mike Jordan, a skinny freshman from Wilmington, Jordan’s jumper from the left with 17 seconds left gave UNC a 63-62 victory against Georgetown in the national championship game. Dean Smith won his first national championship and Jordan became a household name.
▪ Charles Scott, 1969: Maye isn’t the only player to send the Tar Heels to the Final Four with a last-second shot. Scott did it in 1969, making a 20-footer with three seconds to play to give UNC an 87-85 victory against Davidson. UNC advanced to the Final Four for the third consecutive season.
▪ Pete Brennan, 1957: UNC won the national championship with a pair of triple-overtime victories against Michigan State and Kansas in the Final Four. Brennan kept UNC’s season alive in the semifinal against Michigan State, making a buzzer beater to send that game into its second overtime.
And so there you have it: Fox, Smith, Jordan, Scott and Brennan all made shots in the final seconds to give UNC victories in the NCAA tournament. Paige’s shot, in a loss, might have been the best of all of them. And then there’s what happened with Maye.
Sunday was the first time since 1969 that UNC advanced to the Final Four with a game-winning shot in the final seconds. And it was the fourth time since 1985 that any team advanced to the Final Four that way.
Christian Laettner accounted for two of those, sending Duke to the Final Four with buzzer-beaters against Connecticut in 1990 and against Kentucky in 1992. In 2009, Scottie Reynolds’ last-second shot gave Villanova a victory against Pittsburgh, and sent the Wildcats to the Final Four.
Laettner on Monday directed a congratulatory tweet toward Maye, whose shot against Kentucky came on the 25th anniversary Laettner’s shot against the Wildcats in 1992. “May the force of the #32 be with you,” Laettner wrote, referencing the jersey number that he wore, and that Maye wears.
Laettner added a hashtag at the end of his tweet: “The shot lives,” all condensed into one word.
Twenty five years ago Tuesday, the shot he made against Kentucky does live on. Maye’s will likely endure, too, given the stage, and the rarity of such moments, even in UNC’s long basketball history.