No one said anything to Luke Maye this time, from N.C. State or otherwise. No one needed to say anything.
If this was Maye’s final game against the Wolfpack, it was a fitting culmination to two years of personal domination in the rivalry, and even in a season when not everything has gone as planned for Maye, it has for him against N.C. State.
“I don’t know what they did to Luke,” teammate Kenny Williams said. “Maybe it was in high school or whatever. But that man just comes out with a different mindset when he sees that red.”
As the Wolfpack tried to bounce back from its 24-point clown show against Virginia Tech on Saturday, it posted the comparable defensive performance against North Carolina on Tuesday, giving up the most points N.C. State has ever allowed in the rivalry in a 113-96 loss that was never as close as the final score.
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Two out of NC State’s last three visits to the Smith Center, the Wolfpack set school records for futility. The other, they won.
At one point, Maye was fouled going to the basket and made the layup to make it 91-68, and there was an unusual amount of chest-bumping between Maye and his teammates for an and-one in a game that was already essentially over, on his way to 31 points and 12 rebounds, his fourth straight double-double against N.C. State, becoming the first UNC player ever to post three 30-point games against State..
There’s more than a little Roy Williams in Maye, who doth protest too much that his record against N.C. State is largely a coincidence. Maye’s play, and his visible emotions, against NC State tell otherwise.
“Always, always,” Maye said. “It’s a team we get fired up for, and they get fired up, and to beat them like we did tonight is pretty special.”
The acme of all of them was last year’s game in Raleigh, when Theo Pinson claimed a State player dismissed Maye’s athleticism, provoking his career-high 33-point outburst. N.C. State stayed quiet Tuesday, and it didn’t matter.
Maye hasn’t had as many games like that this season, cracking 30 points for the first time Tuesday, with his shooting percentages down from both 2-point and 3-point range, his efficiency and assist rate down, his turnover rate up. He downplayed that, arguing that North Carolina is a deeper team this season while acknowledging he’s missed some shots he would expect to make. There’s also an argument to be made by someone other than Maye that the turnover at point guard from Joel Berry to Coby White has impacted how and where Maye gets the ball, essential to his effectiveness.
If last week’s four-point performance against Georgia Tech was a low point, this was vintage Maye. The Maye of 2018.
“Last year, he had some he looked like freaking Superman out there,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “Tonight was good.”
This was the wrong opponent for N.C. State at the wrong time as it attempted to recover from its historic 24-point clown show on Saturday. As few answers as the Wolfpack had on offense against Virginia Tech, it had just as few on defense against North Carolina.
This was always going to be a tough stretch for the Wolfpack, but it never should have been this tough. If the excuse after the Virginia Tech game was that N.C. State’s misses didn’t give the Wolfpack a chance to set up its pressure defense, what’s the excuse for getting run over by North Carolina’s fast break and getting killed on the boards?
There’s nothing surprising about the Wolfpack being 4-6 in the ACC, with the toughest part of its schedule behind it, but it is a little surprising how the Wolfpack ended up there. N.C. State has to be better than this – and can be better than this – but the Wolfpack doesn’t have the talent to keep up with the Tar Heels when North Carolina plays like this and N.C. State is anything less than perfect.
Maye was a big part of all of that, of course, as he always seems to be against N.C. State. Provoked, or otherwise.