In the locker room afterward some of Luke Maye’s teammates were already watching the moment over again on their phones, replaying a few seconds of March madness and magic that will follow Maye around the rest of his life, wherever he goes and however old he grows.
Maye, the sophomore forward at North Carolina, could never take another shot again in the rest of his years, and he’ll always have what happened Sunday – the 18-footer from the left side, less than a second left on the clock, to beat Kentucky and send the Tar Heels to the Final Four.
Somehow, UNC’s 75-73 victory in the NCAA tournament South Regional championship not only met the pregame hype – and no tournament game was hyped more, even before it came to fruition – but it exceeded it. That was true for several reasons, but true most of all because of how it ended.
And it ended like this: With Maye, the Tar Heels’ unheralded and often overlooked reserve, making the shot of his life – the shot of anyone’s life – from the left side just before time expired.
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He pumped his fist and jumped. His teammates mobbed him. The Tar Heels’ bench went crazy.
“We knocked a couple of people over,” said Seventh Woods, a freshman guard who was among those holding his phone in the locker room, watching a replay that had already gone viral.
After Maye made the shot, there were still three-tenths of a second remaining. Kentucky’s desperation inbounds pass sailed long, out of bounds, and moments later the Tar Heels celebrated again. It was over: UNC was headed to the Final Four for the 20th time in school history.
To make it to Glendale, Ariz., UNC (31-7) on Sunday needed Joel Berry to play through the pain of two injured ankles. The Tar Heels needed Justin Jackson, who finished with a team-high 19 points, to do what he did both offensively and defensively, where he hounded Malik Monk throughout.
UNC at times needed Stilman White, the forever-year senior who, during one moment in the first half, blew past Monk and scored on a reverse layup. The Tar Heels needed the floor slaps from Theo Pinson, and his late free throws, and they needed Kennedy Meeks’ 17 rebounds.
And in the final seconds they needed someone most major college programs might not have thought they could ever need, or want. They needed Maye, the 6-8 forward from Huntersville who was considered something of a recruiting afterthought when he decided to come to North Carolina.
UNC coach Roy Williams told the story of Maye’s recruitment on Friday, after Maye improbably scored 16 points during the Tar Heels’ victory against Butler in the regional semifinal. Williams wasn’t sure he could offer Maye a scholarship, but Maye didn’t mind too much.
He wanted to come to UNC, where his father had been a quarterback for the Tar Heels. Then, late in the recruiting calendar, it turned out that Williams had a scholarship to offer. He called Maye, he said, and suggested that he ask his parents for $1,000 to spend on a weekend trip to the beach.
Williams’ reasoning: He’d just saved Maye’s parents about $25,000 in tuition.
And so back to Sunday. Here Maye was in the final seconds, sharing a court with former five-star recruits and future NBA millionaires. Kentucky’s freshmen trio of De’Aaron Fox and Monk and Edrice Adebayo are all likely but a few months away from becoming very rich men.
Jackson, the Tar Heels’ junior forward who earned ACC Player of the Year honors, might decide to pursue a professional career, as well. All of those college stars and all of those future NBA draft lottery picks, and in the final seconds Maye found himself with the ball, the seconds winding down.
“I just didn’t know how much time was left,” he said later while he smiled and shook his head a little, still seeming a bit stunned that all of this had happened to him. “I didn’t really see a time. He gave it to me, and I saw I was open. So I just shot it and luckily it went in.”
Maye released a soft, smooth shot from the left side. It rotated several turns, spinning its way toward the rim, while the crowd at FedEx Forum became quiet, if only for a moment. This couldn’t have been the ending any of them envisioned.
It couldn’t have been the ending that anyone anywhere envisioned. All of those All-Americans, freshmen and otherwise on the court, and here was Maye, releasing one of the most dramatic shots of March. And it fell through the net and people screamed and Maye’s teammates surrounded him.
“All I could do is put my hands up and go find him,” Berry said afterward, still in pain.
In the photographs that capture the moment after the moment, people will see Maye jumping, pumping his fist, smiling or yelling enough that his mouthpiece is visible. People will see Kentucky fans hanging their heads. And people will see the reporters on press row, their mouths hanging open.
Maye’s shot is what will endure. It was the result of 96 practices, and of Williams’ faith in his team in the kind of moment that it encountered on Sunday. Monk, who finished with 12 points after scoring 47 against UNC back in December, tied the score with nine seconds remaining.
“As everyone knows, coach is not going to call a timeout in that situation,” Berry said.
Berry tried to free himself, but Kentucky denied him the inbounds pass. And so it went to Pinson, the junior forward. Pinson took a couple of steps and looked up to his right, toward Williams. And Williams simply looked back at him, his expression unchanged.
“And I was like, ‘Let’s go do this thing,’ ” Pinson said. “And I just took off. And I was like, I wasn’t scared at all.”
When he crossed mid-court, Pinson said he thought he had about four seconds. He accelerated his pace. He looked toward Jackson on the right, and that was UNC’s first option. Jackson, though, was covered. And so Pinson adjusted.
He penetrated deep enough to create some space for Maye on the left side. Then suddenly Maye found himself with the ball, open, his feet just inside the 3-point line. He rose to take the shot and “oh, it was good,” Pinson said. “I knew it was good.”
During his description of the play, Pinson at times had to stop to breathe. To take a break.
“Man, what a game,” he said. “I can’t even. I’m a loss for words, man.”
Pinson and his teammates, all of them, said they weren’t surprised by this – that Maye made that sort of shot in that sort of moment. They all said they’d seen him do it in practice all the time, and Nate Britt, the senior guard, said Maye “whips our starters’ butts in practice, every day.”
But this wasn’t practice. This was the NCAA tournament. It was a regional championship game, in a sold-out building, the lights bright, the pressure rising, the Tar Heels’ momentum, and the seven-point lead they’d held with 54 seconds to play was gone.
Maybe Maye had done this sort of thing in practice before, but he’d never come close to doing anything of the sort in a game, at any level. Not in college. Not in high school.
“Never that magnitude, for sure,” Maye said, surrounded by cameras afterward.
Entering the South Regional on Friday, Maye had scored 33 points in UNC’s previous six games combined. He scored that many in two games in Memphis. In back-to-back games, on Friday and then again on Sunday, he scored more points than he’d ever scored in a college game.
His final two points are the ones that will live on. They came on a shot that will be replayed over and over again, one that will follow him for the rest of his life. Already some of his teammates were reliving the moment afterward, while Maye did his rounds with the media.
He sat on a podium and answered questions. More awaited in the locker room.
“Oh, gosh,” Maye said, shaking his head, and it still seemed like this was just starting to set in.
Finally the Tar Heels had their space back to themselves. The cameras and the reporters left. The players packed up their things. Maye, who hadn’t even had time to read the congratulatory messages waiting for him on his phone, finished up his last interview and headed for the showers.
On the way one of his teammates, walk-on Aaron Rohlman, stopped Maye to take a selfie with him. Just an admirer and the man of the hour.
It was a small moment in a night full of them, Maye posing with a teammate. The celebration went on, just like the Tar Heels’ season. They’re back in the Final Four for the second consecutive year, on their way thanks to some Maye magic just before time ran out.