If anyone would know, Kris Jenkins would know. He sat right behind the North Carolina bench, with the parents he and Nate Britt, his adoptive brother, now share, his Villanova team eliminated last week.
No one in recent college basketball history has made as big a shot as the one Jenkins made last April to beat the Tar Heels in the national championship game. When Jenkins, of all people, anoints Luke Maye as “Big Shot Luke,” that means something.
“That was a big-time shot, a big-time play,” Jenkins said.
So Jenkins watched this time as history twisted back on itself, and North Carolina’s quest for redemption took an ironic twist as the same sequence played out Sunday, with the Tar Heels at the opposite end.
Instead of Marcus Paige hitting a crazy 3-pointer to tie the score late, it was Kentucky’s Malik Monk. And instead of Jenkins hitting the winner, it was Maye, a name that no one would have suggested before this weekend but seemed an entirely fitting one to end it and send North Carolina back to the Final Four, two wins away from the redemption the Tar Heels so desperately seek.
“Right?” Joel Berry said, shaking his head. “I know. I’m just glad Luke hit that shot.”
The Tar Heels will get their shot now, after Maye’s runner with 0.3 seconds to go secured a 75-73 win in a game that felt every bit like it was actually for the national title. They have to go through Oregon first, then Gonzaga or South Carolina with a win. Either way, they head to Phoenix as the favorites, just as Kentucky would have been with a win, two elite teams that delivered a classic finish to this South Regional that met every expectation.
The winning shot came from a player who made Memphis his own this weekend, an instant North Carolina folk hero even before the shot. Maye’s double-double Friday night was the difference-maker in North Carolina’s win over Butler. Sunday, he had 12 of his 17 points in the second half to help carry the Tar Heels through a dry spell, the last two the clutchest of all after Theo Pinson was stopped driving toward the rim and fed a wide-open Maye for an 18-foot jump shot, echoing last season’s cruel finish.
“We’re not going to say it resembles that,” said Britt, who watched a replay of Maye’s shot set to the theme from “Titanic” on his phone as he sat in front of his locker. “We’re not going give that game, or that one shot, any more glory.”
And yet that one shot had motivated the Tar Heels for the past 11 months, ruining the 4.8 seconds between Paige’s shot and Jenkins’ game-winner when their season unraveled at the very last instant. There’s no getting around it. With the Tar Heels’ bang-bang play of their own, with Pinson finding Maye, perhaps the Tar Heels have finally moved beyond that moment.
North Carolina already had its season flash before its eyes once this tournament, down five to Arkansas late, only to score the final 12 points of the game. Here the Tar Heels were again, with a little more time but in the same fix, another big lead gone, down five to Kentucky with five minutes to go, stagnant on offense, unable to stop the unlikely Isaac Humphries on defense.
Then Pinson got to the rim. North Carolina went zone for a possession. Justin Jackson got to the rim. Kennedy Meeks blocked Bam Adebayo. Pinson drew a foul and made two free throws. Maye made two free throws. A limping Berry got to the rim for his first points in hours. Two more Pinson free throws made it another 12-0 run. This one didn’t end the game. It did get the Tar Heels in position to get to a second straight Final Four, even if it would still come down to two amazing shots.
“Man,” Berry said. “We just toughed it out.”
“People question our toughness all the time,” Pinson said, “but we come out and fight.”
For a while in the first half, it felt like 2012 all over again for North Carolina, right down to playing in front of a partisan opposing crowd as a No. 1 seed. When Berry went down clutching his other ankle – sitting with a towel over his head before leaving for the locker room with a downcast look on his face – and Stilman White came off the bench, there were echoes of that frustrating regional final everywhere. It would come out afterward that Berry sprained his already injured right ankle in practice Saturday, and now the left was sprained as well.
But White beat Monk on the baseline for a reverse layup, and Berry came trotting back shortly after and went straight to the rim, and the 2012 team, for all its starpower, never had a shooter like Jackson, who kept the Tar Heels afloat during that dangerous sequence. On a team obsessed with redemption, White got a little bit personally in that sequence, after his “poor Stilman” cameo as a freshman in that 2012 loss to Kansas in St. Louis, as Roy Williams would forever refer to him after that.
Unlike the wild 103-100 Kentucky win in December, this was a more physical, more emotional game, but it delivered everything that was expected of it, the unquestioned marquee game of the tournament so far, between what were, in some eyes, the two best teams remaining. In a year when the other titans of the game fell early or unexpectedly or both – Villanova, Duke, Kansas, Louisville, Arizona, UCLA – these were the last two standing. As they so often are.
Either North Carolina or Kentucky has been in seven of the past nine Final Fours, 2017 included, but never together. Twice, they have met in a regional final. Kentucky won in 2011. This was North Carolina’s year.
So in a Final Four with two football schools and the original mid-major, North Carolina is left to carry not only the banner of basketball tradition but their own banner of redemption, having gotten one step closer to it by winning Sunday the same way they lost last April, and in front of the man who did it to them no less.
“This is what basketball is all about,” Jenkins said, and he would know. Now, the Tar Heels know, too.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock