Theo Pinson isn’t entirely sure who said it, or whether Luke Maye even heard it. He can only infer that Maye did by what happened next. Someone on N.C. State dismissed Maye as a threat, and would the Wolfpack ever come to regret it.
“One of them said, ‘You can guard him, he’s not that athletic,’ or something like that,” Pinson said. “He just started cooking after that. There’s two people I wouldn’t talk junk to: Joel Berry and Luke Maye.”
A year after Maye launched a thousand gifs with his shot-fake that left Omer Yurtseven hanging in the air, helpless, Maye returned to the scene of the crime to do N.C. State even dirtier. He set a career-high with 13 points at PNC Arena last year; his 33-point performance – making 12 of his 14 second-half shots along with 17 rebounds – was the difference in a 96-89 North Carolina win that saw the Tar Heels withstand a 19-0 N.C. State run in the first half that sent the building into an unrestrained frenzy.
It was Maye’s third 30-point game of the season, all in the last 32 days. It’s possible he’s getting better as the season wears on. He’s averaging a double-double. He’s outscoring Berry. He’s fourth in the ACC in scoring and second in rebounding.
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So that’s where we are at this point in the season, somewhere we never could have imagined being when Maye was a little-used freshman, or even during his sophomore year, even after the shot that beat Kentucky.
Is Luke Maye the second-best player in the ACC?
There’s no debate about Marvin Bagley III being No. 1. He’s a legitimate phenomenon, even more so considering he’s supposed to be a senior in high school right now, not dominating the best college basketball league in the country. Duke keeps losing because Bagley is not seeing the ball enough, not because Bagley isn’t doing enough when he has it.
Beyond that, Maye keeps making his unlikely case. There are more talented players in the ACC, a bunch of them on Maye’s own team, even. But it’s hard to argue with this kind of productivity, and Maye continues to push his own personal productivity boundaries.
These aren’t garbage baskets, either, open dunks off guard penetration or put-backs. In one second-half sequence, Maye threw in a running 3-pointer almost offhandedly, then drove the left baseline for a layup on the next possession.
“I just continue to try to play my game,” Maye said, about as self-promoting as he ever gets.
“If he’s not going to give himself credit, I’m going to give him credit,” North Carolina’s Cam Johnson said. “He played a great game, and he’s a tremendous player.”
In a game that saw 11 players finish in double figures, with defense largely optional – North Carolina’s 19 turnovers were self-inflicted as much as they were provoked by N.C. State’s defense – no one thrived more than Maye. Yurtseven’s utter inability to deal with Maye left N.C. State’s best player pinned to the bench for the final four minutes when the Wolfpack was trying, futilely, to chip away at a deficit it could never actually close.
Asked about N.C. State’s defense, especially coming off the issues in last week’s loss at Virginia Tech, N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts kept coming up with to the same explanation.
“I go back to it,” Keatts said. “Luke Maye had a tremendous day.”
You couldn’t ask for any more than this, with the building full and Keatts in his red blazer and Roy Williams watching his team endure a 19-0 N.C. State run late in the first half with his arms crossed, only to reward, yet again, his timeout-hoarding with a 7-0 run in response. N.C. State went punch for punch with North Carolina all afternoon but just couldn’t get a rebound or a stop in the latter portions of the game.
Maye was a big reason for that. He had struggled against good teams, piling up numbers against bad teams, but he had a solid 15 points in Thursday’s win over Duke and followed that up with a new career-high Saturday.
It has taken a while for North Carolina to get to this point, where the Tar Heels are starting to figure things out, how to play small, how to best use the unusual skill sets of Maye and Johnson. There may be more growing to do, but they have come this far, even if Saturday they got an unexpected push that got the best out of Maye, and by extension everyone else on a day they needed every bit of it to beat N.C. State.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock