Luke Maye was just one of the guys coming off the bench for the North Carolina basketball team before Sunday. Then he hit the game-winning shot against Kentucky that sent the Tar Heels to the Final Four and his entire world changed.
Within 24 hours, the sophomore forward had become an internet sensation, with videos simply showing up at class the next morning going viral and his story gracing the sports sections of newspapers as far away as London, England.
So what happens next?
Will Maye slip back into semi-anonymity now that his 15 minutes of fame are about up? Or will his unexpected heroics in Memphis be the springboard to even greater success as UNC prepares to finish off its national championship quest this weekend in Phoenix?
The answer will ultimately be provided by Maye himself with the way he plays. But as far as coach Roy Williams is concerned, he’ll be given every opportunity to build on the success he achieved while earning Most Outstanding Player honors at last week’s NCAA South Regional.
“I think you ride the hot hand,” Williams said of Maye, who set career scoring highs in both UNC’s Sweet 16 win against Butler and that Elite Eight victory against Kentucky. “I’ll never forget 1981 in the Final Four semifinals, Al Wood made about three or four in a row. Coach (Dean) Smith didn’t very often ask me many questions, I think he was just speaking out loud, but he said ‘Do you think I should take Al out?’ I said ‘I’d wait until he misses one’ and he made three more in a row. Coach Smith tapped me on the knee and said ‘good job,’ and I felt like I’d won the lottery.”
Williams wasn’t playing a hunch when he kept Maye on the floor for extended minutes against Butler on Friday. It was a move mandated by foul trouble to both starting power forward Isaiah Hicks and backup Tony Bradley.
Maye responded by posting his first career double-double with a career-high 16 points and 12 rebounds in a season-most 25 minutes.
That performance, combined with Hicks’ ineffectiveness two days later was why he was on the court for the most important possession of the year. His 18-foot jumper with 0.3 seconds left didn’t just extend the Tar Heels’ season, it also finished off a night in which he extended his career scoring high again — this time to 17 points.
“I put him in for a reason the other night, because I thought he could help our team,” Williams said. “I thought that Isaiah was struggling and I put Luke in with 7-8 minutes left.”
Though Maye was an unlikely hero because of his supporting role with the Tar Heels, neither his productive games or the calmness with which he hit his winning should should come as a complete surprise.
The son of former UNC quarterback Mark Maye had already made significant contributions in several other big games — including an 11-point performance in a regular season matchup with Kentucky in December, a 13-point, seven-rebound effort against rival NC State and a career-high 15 rebounds in a win against Florida State.
He’s seen action in every game other than the five me missed with an ankle injury early in the season with one start, averaging 5.5 points and 4.1 rebounds in just over 14 minutes per game.
“The entire year, Coach has been putting me in the games wanting me to make good plays,” Maye said. “Some games I hit a shot early, other games I just get a rebound or make a good pass. I’m just going out there trying to help my team win as best I can.
“Luckily these past few games I’ve made a couple of my first few shots, it’s given me confidence and my teammates are looking for me more. I’m just blessed to be in this situation.”
Now that he’s tasted a little success — and a lot of notoriety — he’s likely to be faced with a much different situation than he’s accustomed both in the days leading up to Saturday’s national semifinal showdown against Oregon and in the game itself.
“I just talked to my mom on the phone and she was saying ‘I know it’s going to be crazy and you’re going to feel a lot of pressure going into this weekend,’ but I don’t feel any pressure because I know how good I can be and how I can play,” Maye said. “I’m just looking forward to this opportunity. Just like any other game, I’m going to take the game and do what I can to help my team win.”