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How UNC’s Luke Maye became capable of doing what he did against Northern Iowa

Luke Maye wouldn’t say whether it’s on a bulletin board, or a note card, or whether it’s a list inside of his wallet or something taped to his wall. Whatever it is, though, and wherever he keeps it, he acknowledged on Friday that he has indeed kept a running list of slights, insults and other things that have made him angry enough to remember them and file them away.

It’s not difficult to imagine the kind of things Maye has collected: criticism about how he’s too slow, not athletic enough, not cut out to be the kind of basketball player he has always believed he can be.

“I have some things,” he said with a smile after he led the Tar Heels with 26 points and 10 rebounds during their 86-69 season-opening victory against Northern Iowa. “But I’m kind of keeping them to myself.”

A little earlier, down another hall in the bowels of the Smith Center, UNC coach Roy Williams had just said the kinds of things he often has about Maye during the past seven months, ever since Maye made the shot of his life – and just about anyone else’s life – in the final seconds against Kentucky in an NCAA tournament regional championship game.

When it happened, when Maye’s 19-footer from the left wing went in, sending UNC to the Final Four, the moment was met with shock. On a team with no shortage of proven, capable players – from Joel Berry to Justin Jackson to Kennedy Meeks – it was Maye who’d made one of the most memorable shots in UNC basketball history.

A little more than seven months later, Maye’s junior season debut proved his Memphis magic to be no fluke. He proved on Friday night, instead, that what happened on that Sunday afternoon in late March might instead have been just the beginning.

“I told everyone before – before the season started, that Luke Maye is going to shock everybody,” Theo Pinson, the Tar Heels’ versatile senior, said on Friday after he’d watched, and helped, Maye do what he did. “I mean 26 and how much? Twelve? Ten? First night? I’m not shocked, honestly.”

Pinson said he tried to warn anyone who’d listen – “I knew at some point he’s going to explode,” he said of Maye – and to illustrate his point Pinson used a story to illustrate Maye’s competitiveness, his drive to overachieve. It was a story about pre-practice shooting competitions, Pinson vs. Maye.

“We’re talking junk to each other, all the time,” Pinson said of Maye, who’s usually soft-spoken and quiet when he does his rounds with reporters. “So he’s a competitor and I love him. … He talks a lot of junk.”

There was, as UNC coach Roy Williams put it, “a lot of things to like” about the Tar Heels’ season-opening performance. For one, they didn’t much miss Joel Berry and Cameron Johnson, two starters who sat out while recovering from minor injuries.

For another, UNC received quality production from Garrison Brooks, the freshman forward who finished with 14 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes. Williams has entered the season with significant concern about how to fill a large void in the post, and Brooks’ college debut, as polished as it was, suggested that he will be a capable contributor.

Among all the numbers Williams might have appreciated on Friday, though, Maye’s 26 and 10 especially stood out. The 26 points were the most he’d ever scored in a college game – nine more than he had in that memorable game against Kentucky. The 10 rebounds led the team and reflected Maye’s natural inclination to pursue missed shots with a purposeful, channeled aggression.

Offensively, Maye made two of his three 3-point attempts. Inside, he once beat a slower defender with a quick spin move in the post, leaving behind a bewildered, hapless opponent on the way to the basket for a lay-up.

“I’ve tried to continue to work on getting a little bit more well-rounded in the post,” Maye said. “And really try to score more inside. We lost Tony (Bradley), Kennedy (Meeks) and Isaiah (Hicks), all our top scorers inside, and I really think we need a really big post presence.”

And so Maye, once something of an overlooked prospect during his years at Hough High in Cornelius, decided that’d be him on Friday night. He has decided a lot of things, actually: That he’ll become the fastest player on the team, at least over the course of a mile, as he proved during UNC’s preseason conditioning program, and that he’ll become the Tar Heels’ best-conditioned player.

Those things were within his control, after all, at least to an extent. And so Maye went to work.

The stories that were written and told about Maye when he made The Shot became well-known last March. The ones about how he agreed to become preferred walk-on at UNC, before a scholarship opened up. The ones about how so little was expected of him. And yet his moment against Kentucky proved to be the beginning of another story, too, that began after the season ended.

“I took a week off after the championship,” Maye said, “and I felt like I needed to get back in there, I needed to get better. I had a good finish to the season but I want to put a whole season together.”

Last March, Williams retold again and again the story of how he recruited Maye, whose father, Mark, was a UNC quarterback. On Friday night, Williams repeated parts of that story, and recalled again what he told Maye’s father when Maye was but a kid attending UNC’s basketball camps: “He’s going to have a chance,” Williams said, repeating what he told Mark Maye. “He’s going to have a chance.”

Williams knew that much, at least. What he didn’t know, he said on Friday, was how much Maye would “want it.” As he’s prone to do when he tells stories like these, Williams referenced Tyler Hansbrough, who has become his gold standard of measuring a player’s work ethic and determination.

“I knew that Tyler Hansbrough wanted to be a great player, and was going to work, work, work, work,” Williams said. “And you hope that with everybody. But I think Luke has fulfilled my expectation for how badly he wants to be a good player, and then some. His desire is just off the charts.”

And yet where does that desire come from? Maye considered the question on Friday night.

This was the first time he’d ever led UNC in scoring. It was the second time in college he’d finished a game in double figures in points and rebounds, and the first since he’d done so against Butler during the NCAA tournament last March.

The work he put in during the off-season, the daily sessions in the gym, the nights working on his shot, the time he spent learning new moves in the post from some of UNC’s alums who came back to the Smith Center – it all translated into 26 and 10. Yet what translated into the work behind those numbers?

“Out of high school,” Maye said, explaining the root of his desire, “I wasn’t very highly recruited, and I feel like that was kind of a disservice to me, because I feel like I did as much if not more than a lot of guys. And I really felt like I had a great opportunity here and a lot of people kind of doubted me.

“And I just wanted to prove people wrong.”

And so he did again on Friday, all while keeping in mind whatever his skeptics have said about him – those words Maye won’t share and won’t forget, either.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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