MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Luke Maye’s 18-foot jumper with 0.3 seconds remaining will go down in North Carolina lore as the shot that lifted the Tar Heels to the 20th Final Four in school history.
But it was only the final action in a perfectly executed sequence of events that took place over the final 7.2 seconds of UNC’s 75-73 victory against Kentucky in Sunday’s NCAA South Region championship game at FedExForum.
Here, step-by-step, is a breakdown of the play and the split-second decisions that made it happen:
After having the game seemingly in hand, leading by seven with 53.5 seconds remaining, Kentucky’s Malik Monk brought back nightmares of disappointments past by hitting a 3-pointer from the top of the circle to tie the game at 73.
Coach Roy Williams stepped out of character a few minutes earlier when he called timeout to help his team regain its composure after falling behind by five, but this time he stuck to his convictions implored his team to immediately shift into attack mode.
“When they scored,” Williams said, “I was just screaming go, go, go.”
The Hall of Fame coach’s philosophy in such situations is to call timeout and set up a play when there’s under six seconds remaining, but to sit back and let his players try to catch the defense flat-footed in transition with any more time than that on the clock.
And that’s exactly what happened.
“I had a timeout left, but I like to try to score in the open court and we practice it every day,” Williams said. “Believe it or not, we have practices where we play with a 15-second clock because I want to push the ball hard enough to get a great shot in 15 seconds. We’ve won a few games like that.”
Kennedy Meeks helped open the door for Kentucky’s late push by getting called for a five-second call while trying to inbound the ball under the Wildcats’ basket. This time, though, the senior center grabbed the ball as soon as it came through the basket on Monk’s 3-pointer and immediately put it back into play.
The swiftness of his reaction turned out to be important because unlike Williams, Kentucky coach John Calipari did want to call timeout in that situation.
“I probably should have called timeout,” Calipari said. “It entered my mind, but they got that son-of-a-b in so quick, I couldn’t get to anybody to do it. I needed to stop that right there.”
The stroke of luck
Under normal circumstances, point guard Joel Berry would have been the player rushing the ball upcourt for the Tar Heels. But Kentucky wasn’t about to let him get the ball into his hands. Second option Justin Jackson was also well-covered. So Meeks inbounded it to Theo Pinson instead.
That turned out to be a fortuitous choice, because with Berry suffering from not one, but two sprained ankles, he might not have had his usual explosiveness in attacking Kentucky’s defense.
“Theo made a heck of a play,” Williams said. “I was really glad the ball went to him because I didn’t know how hard Joel would have been able to push.”
The decision part II
Following Williams’ instructions, Pinson hurried the ball up the right side of the court, then cut toward the middle and appeared as though he would try to take it all the way to the rim and he got to the lane.
“I got the ball and I just wanted to attack,” Pinson said. “In a tie game you don’t want to settle. I wanted to get downhill and they didn’t get back as fast as I thought they would, so I was like ‘Let me keep the pressure on the defense.’
“They were staying with Joel and Justin at halfcourt, so I was like, ‘Alright, I’m going to have to make a play.”
But before committing to go all the way to the basket, the junior guard saw Maye to his left out of the corner of his eye, holding his hand up to get his attention. And Pinson made the decision that sent UNC back to the Final Four.
“Once I attacked the basket, it was either (Derek) Willis was going to come in and cut me off or I was going to make a layup,” Pinson said. “Once he stepped in, I just tried to shield him off and get Luke a good look by himself. He knocked it in. Big-time shot.”
Maye might have been an unlikely hero because of his reserve role and his less than blue-chip backstory, but in the context of this South Regional, he might actually have been the most reliable option to take the final shot.
“Luke is a shooter,” forward Isaiah Hicks said. “I feel like that was an easy shot. He makes threes look easy sometimes.”
He made six of his 10 field goal attempts (3 of 5 on 3-pointers) in Friday’s region semifinal win against Butler and had made five of his first eight shots (2 of 3) to that point against Kentucky.
Unlike the Butler game, in which his extended playing time was the result of foul trouble to UNC’s other bigs, Maye was in the game at the end Sunday because of Hicks’ ineffectiveness.
On the final play, Maye was in the right place at the right time because he hustled down the court as Pinson advanced it, found an open spot on the left wing and raised his hand to get his teammate’s attention.
“Once I saw him, I knew if I could I could give him a good pitch, hit him in the pocket and give him a wide open shot, we could take that all day,” Pinson said. “He was hot.”
Maye never flinched once he got the ball, catching it and pulling the trigger in a fluid motion before being mobbed by his teammates as the ball hit the net.
“It was a great feeling,” Maye said. “I thank my teammates so much and my coach for putting me in that situation. I’m just very blessed to have this opportunity.”