If North Carolina had beaten Kentucky on Saturday, if the Tar Heels had held on in the final moments of their eventual 103-100 defeat, people would be talking about a few things: About the shots Justin Jackson made late to give UNC the lead. About how well Joel Berry played in his return from an ankle injury.
They’d be talking about grit and resiliency and all of those things -- rallying, twice, from double-digit deficits, once in the first half and again in the second. And they’d be talking about Luke Maye, and the unlikely spark he provided with his 3-point shooting.
You could argue that's what enabled the Tar Heels to have a chance late in the first place. With a little less than eight minutes to play here on Saturday, Kentucky seemed on the verge of blowing the game open.
Tony Bradley, the Tar Heels' freshman forward, had just missed a dunk that he'd probably convert 99 other times out of 100. And then eight seconds later, Kentucky freshman Da'Aaron Fox made a layup to give the Wildcats an 84-74 lead, their largest of the second half.
It seemed at the time like a monumental momentum swing: a missed dunk. A quick layup on the other end to build a 10-point lead. The thousands of Kentucky fans who'd made the trip here – more than 10,000 of them – stood and roared, a deafening noise inside the T-Mobile Arena.
And then, just when it seemed like the Tar Heels were in more trouble than they'd been in all day, who comes to the rescue but Maye, the 6-foot-8 sophomore? Before Saturday, Maye had been known for a few things in his season and six games with the Tar Heels.
Rebounding, hustle, the ability to make a quick layup in the flow of the Tar Heels' offense. Maye has proven he can provide all of those things, and it’s clear that coach Roy Williams values his contributions. Still, Maye hadn't proven -- at least not during games -- that opposing teams need to worry about him making 3-pointers.
And yet here he was on Saturday, the Tar Heels down 10, their hopes fading, attempting a 3 of great implications. Imagine for a moment if Maye, with UNC down 10, takes a 3 and misses. Kentucky likely gets the rebound and, based on how things went on Saturday, there's a good chance that Malik Monk capitalizes on the other end with a 3 of his own. Maybe the Wildcats go up 13.
But Maye didn't miss. His 3-pointer with about 7 ½ minutes to play – a 3 that came eight seconds after Fox's layup – cut Kentucky's lead to seven. And then, after a Wildcats miss and turnover, and after a timeout, it was Maye again from behind the 3-point line, this time with about seven minutes to play.
He made it, again, and Kentucky's lead was four. Just like that, Maye bringing the Tar Heels back into the game with his perimeter shooting. How unlikely was this? Consider that before Saturday, Maye had made all of three 3-pointers during his time at UNC.
Then during a span of about 45 seconds, he made two against Kentucky. Earlier in the game, Maye had made a layup and a free throw. That sequence, he said afterward, provided him with some confidence to do what he did later.
“Coach keeps telling me, 'If I'm open, knock it in,'” Maye said, “and that's just what I've I've kind of been doing. I've been shooting the ball better lately, and just really need to work on continuing to make my move inside and finish those easy ones around the basket.”
Maybe he needs to continue shooting 3s, too. Maye has now made three of his seven 3-point attempts this season, and just imagine how people would remember the two he made against the Wildcats on Saturday had the Tar Heels won?
Ifs and buts, though. While he sat in the locker room on Saturday, those 3-pointers he'd made didn't seem to provide Maye with much solace. They were shots that helped give UNC a chance when the game seemed to be slipping away. They were shots that helped Maye finish with a career-high 11 points.
Still, Maye said, “it was all about the team.” And the team was crushed, starting with coach Roy Williams. Williams afterward told the Tar Heels that “he loves our resilience,” Maye said, “and battling back.”
And that UNC did, starting with Maye's unlikely 3-pointers.