Whether North Carolina goes to the Final Four or doesn’t make it out of the weekend, whether redemption is on the cards or disappointment lurks around the corner, even if this game ends up a forgotten waypoint on the road somewhere else, it will always be remembered for one thing, one player.
Many a tune has been improvised in the neon-lit honky-tonks that line Beale Street, only a block away, but never one as improbable as the Ballad of Luke Maye.
North Carolina is moving on to face Kentucky in a regional final that is unquestionably the most anticipated game of the tournament so far, and not because of Justin Jackson or Joel Berry, although they did their part, and not because Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks pressed the Tar Heels’ advantage inside against Butler.
The difference Friday was Maye, who in a mere 11 first-half minutes was the difference, giving the Tar Heels a 16-point halftime cushion they would end up needing as Butler gave them a push in the final five minutes before North Carolina locked down a 92-80 win.
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“Today I got a couple shots to fall in and felt pretty confident, and they kept going, and it gave us the win today,” Maye said.
Who saw it coming? Butler’s scouting report may have identified many offensive threats, but it’s hard to believe Maye was one of them. And for good reason. Most nights, he’s North Carolina’s fourth big, and while he’s certainly contributed at times, he has never contributed like this.
Maye had made 11 3-pointers all season. He had three in the first half, the third taking the softest of shooter’s bounces off the front of the rim. He averages 5.1 points per game. He had a career-high 14 in the first half. He had nine rebounds in the first half. Butler had 11. He finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds, his first career double-double.
“All I said in my mind was it’s his day, and we’re going to keep giving it to him,” Meeks said. “Like I said before, coach came in at halftime and named who had bad shots. Luke only had one. Usually in practice, it’s about seven of them things.”
On a team full of stars and shooters, Maye somehow outshined them all, even if he didn’t outscore them all. His playing time was boosted in part by Hicks’ foul trouble, but the sophomore from Huntersville earned the right to stay out there.
The son of a former North Carolina quarterback, Maye was originally recruited to North Carolina as a walk-on, with the promise of a scholarship down the road. When the Tar Heels missed on a few targets in Maye’s class and had scholarships to spare, North Carolina coach Roy Williams made a phone call.
“I called Luke one night and said, ‘I want you to go in and ask your mom and dad if you can have just $1,000 to go to the beach and blow it this weekend,’ ” Williams said. “He said, ‘Coach, I don’t know if I can do that.’ And I said, ‘Well tell them that I just called you and gave you a $25,000 scholarship for the next year so at least they ought to be able to give you a thousand to blow.’ ”
While that leaves open the question of how an 18-year-old could go through a grand in a beach weekend – that’s a lot of T-shirts, mini footballs and Corona beach towels from Wings – it underlines Williams’ faith in Maye, whether he was originally a scholarship recruit or not. And with the imminent departure of Meeks and Hicks, North Carolina’s going to need a lot more of this from Maye, not just Sunday or however long the season lasts, but next year, and the year after that.
Maye is one of those players whose teammates always talk about how good he is in practice – “He’s a different animal sometimes,” Theo Pinson said – but doens’t always get a chance to show that in games. Hicks’ early foul trouble opened the door Friday, and Maye was a better matchup against Butler’s mobile bigs than freshman Tony Bradley.
As Butler’s big men paid extra attention to North Carolina’s guards, Maye was left open in pick-and-pop situations. And when he’s left open, there’s not a lot of hesitation.
“I think you know this: He doesn’t shy away from taking 3-point shots,” Hicks said.
That’s how the tournament goes, sometimes. After getting a scare against Arkansas last Sunday, the Tar Heels avoided any such drama, running their lead to as many as 20 in the first half. And while North Carolina isn’t exactly short on scoring depth, every little bit helps, especially coming from a guy who had only four double-digit scoring games all season. When Butler cut North Carolina’s lead to 15 in the second half, Maye came into the game and immediately scored in the post: instant offense off the bench.
After appearing in all of three minutes in last year’s run to the national title game, Maye has been a consistent contributor off the bench so far – 10 points and nine rebounds against Texas Southern and seven points and three rebounds against Arkansas before Friday’s unprecedented outburst.
The last time Maye made this kind of difference was the Kentucky game back in December, when he banged in a couple critical 3-pointers in that up-and-down race to triple digits. He also had a pair against Miami in the ACC tournament, but that Kentucky game seemed to demand the best of everyone on the court, for both teams, and Maye played his part.
The Tar Heels would presumably need all of that again in a rematch with Kentucky on Sunday, Maye included.
That’s something North Carolina will worry about Saturday. For now, the Tar Heels roll along, one game away from their second straight Final Four and fifth under Williams, spending another night in Memphis listening to a song no one ever expected to hear: How Butler got the Luke Maye blues.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock