RALEIGH — Luke Maye couldn’t pinpoint exactly when he realized he was in the “zone” during the second half of Saturday’s rematch with NC State.
As far as his North Carolina basketball teammate Theo Pinson is concerned, it happened with about six minutes left when Maye hit an NBA-length 3-pointer over Wolfpack big man Omer Yurtseven, then raised both hands flashing three fingers in the air.
“When I saw him come downcourt and saw him tell the away crowd ‘let’s go,’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s on something right now,’” Pinson said. “I’ve seen this in practice a couple of times. Y’all are in trouble.”
As it turned out, Pinson was right. State didn’t have an answer for Maye. Or anyone else wearing Carolina blue, for that matter.
The 6-foot-8 junior scored 27 of his career-high 33 points after halftime and the Tar Heels closed the game out by making 25 of their final 32 shots from the floor to pull away for a 96-89 victory at PNC Arena that avenged an overtime loss to the Wolfpack in Chapel Hill exactly two weeks earlier.
In many ways, Saturday’s game was a carbon copy of the first meeting, in which State in general and 3-point marksman Allerik Freeman caught fire down the stretch to come out on top. Freeman went 7 for 7 from 3-point range to key the victory.
This time it was UNC’s Maye that carried his team to the finish line with a shooting performance that was almost (but not quite) perfect.
“My teammates found me in the right spots, I made a couple early, just continued to shoot it and stay aggressive, and luckily they continued to go in,” said Maye, who made just three of his first eight shots before hitting 12 of his last 14, while adding 17 rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
“In the second half, I felt like I was making a lot of shots,” he said. “I missed two, so I can still be better with that.”
UNC (19-7, 8-5 ACC) had its troubles during a first half in which it shot just 38.5 percent, committed 11 turnovers and allowed the Wolfpack to run off 19 unanswered points during a pivotal 3:45 stretch.
The Tar Heels had only two turnovers the entire game Thursday against Duke. And yet, despite all that went wrong in the opening 20 minutes, they trailed by only two at the break.
State (16-9, 6-6) extended the margin to 40-35 on a 3-pointer by Markell Johnson to start the second half.
Then Maye took over.
He scored on a layup, then following a steal by Kenny Williams, hit a jumper in the lane, and then a tip-in off a Joel Berry miss on the next possession put his team ahead and the Tar Heels were off and running.
Although it took awhile for UNC to finally gain some separation, thanks in part to eight more second half turnovers and State’s own hot 60-percent shooting, the Tar Heels never trailed the rest of the way en route to winning the first two legs of their current three-games-in-five day stretch.
“Second half, down the stretch, we just didn’t get enough stops,” said Torin Dorn, one of several Wolfpack players who tried — and failed — to guard Maye. “When you don’t get stops it’s hard to win games. Maye just had more heart than we did today. We can’t let a guy erupt for 17 rebounds and 30-some points and expect to win.”
While Maye did his share of damage, including a stretch in which he scored 10 straight points for UNC — punctuated by the long 3-pointer that got Pinson’s attention — he had plenty of help in bringing down the Wolfpack.
Berry finished with 16 points on a day in which he incurred the wrath of 19,500 State fans still angry at him for saying earlier in the week that the Wolfpack isn’t the Tar Heels’ rival.
“I just let my play do the talking,” is all he would say about the controversy.
Cameron Johnson added 13 points while Pinson and Williams added 11 each. Dorn led the Wolfpack with 21 points, but despite six players in double figures with 21 points, Maye and the Tar Heels just as many answers.
UNC scored on 29 of 30 second half possessions in which it didn’t turn the ball over while scoring 61 points after the break. The coup de grace came with just over a minute remaining when Williams hesitated for a moment, thought about driving to the basket, then stepped back to hit a 3-pointer that opened up an 88-81 lead.
“I thought the biggest play of the game was when Williams made that three,” State coach Kevin Keatts said. “Give those guys credit. The plays we made at the end of the game at UNC, they made the plays tonight.”