MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Villanova’s Kris Jenkins broke North Carolina’s heart in last year’s national championship game. Kentucky’s Malik Monk did the same earlier this season with a 3-point dagger of his own in Las Vegas.
Sunday at FedExFourm, it was finally the Tar Heels’ turn to inflict a little game-ending heartache on someone else — with the unlikeliest of heroes delivering the decisive blow.
Luke Maye capped a magical weekend by calmly hitting an 18-foot jumper with 0.3 seconds remaining to beat the Wildcats 75-73 and earn a second straight trip to the Final Four. UNC will now head to Phoenix, where its quest for redemption will continue next Saturday with a national semifinal date against Oregon.
“I’m a tad bit surprised because anytime there’s a big shot, you’d think Justin (Jackson) or Joel (Berry) would be the one to take it,” senior guard Nate Britt said. “If not those two then one of our other starters. But if you told me that Luke had the opportunity to win the game and he’d make the shot, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.”
Maye, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, came into the weekend having scored only 41 points in his nine previous games combined. After hitting for a career-high 16 points in Friday’s South Region semifinal against Butler, he came right back with a new high water mark of 17 against Kentucky.
The last three of which were the biggest.It came on a play that started in ominously familiar fashion when Monk, whose late shot beat UNC back in December, hit a 3-pointer from the top of the circle with 7.2 seconds remaining to tie the score at 73.
But before anyone of the light-blue clad fans among the heavily pro-Kentucky crowd of 16,412 even had a chance to start thinking “here we go again,”
Theo Pinson quickly began advancing the ball in the opposite direction.
“I probably should have called a timeout,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “But they got that son-of-a-b in so quick I couldn’t get anybody to do it.”
The quickness with which Kennedy Meeks inbounded the ball and Pinson pushed it across midcourt left the Wildcats’ defense with little time to get organized. When it collapsed on Pinson to keep him from driving too deep into the lane, it left Maye open for his opportunity to become a Tar Heel legend.And he didn’t miss.
“I just kind of stepped back and he gave me the ball,” Maye said of Pinson. “I just shot it and luckily it went in. It was a great feeling.”
While Calipari regretted not calling time to slow the Tar Heels down, Williams said wasn’t about to call one to help the Wildcats out.”If it’s six seconds or more, we try to push,” Williams said. “If it’s five seconds or less we’ll call a timeout. I had a timeout left, but I like to score in the open court and we practice that every day.”
As much as not calling a timeout in that key situation helped the Tar Heels (31-7) pull the victory out, it was a timeout Williams actually did call five minutes earlier that put them in position for the final possession to matter.
UNC trailed 64-59 at the time when its Hall of Fame coach, not liking his team’s body language, called his players to the bench with 5:03 remaining.
During the break, he reminded them that they’d battled back from an almost identical predicament a week earlier against Arkansas. And just like that game, the Tar Heels responded by clamping down on defense and scoring the next 12 points to regain control.
“He just told us to believe,” said senior guard Joel Berry, who finished with 11 points, three assists and two steals in 33 minutes despite playing two sprained ankles. “We went out there, changed up our defense a little bit and it messed with them, and then our guys went out there and hit some big-time shots.”
While the switch to a zone following the timeout confused Kentucky long enough for UNC to get back into the game, it was a dogged man-to-man effort of ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson that made the most significant impact all night long.
In the hours leading up to Sunday’s game, the assumption was that defensive specialist Pinson would draw the assignment of guarding Monk — who torched the Tar Heels for 47 points in their earlier meeting. Instead, it was Jackson that shadowed him, harassed him and trash-talked him into a 4 of 10 performance and only 12 points while scoring 19 of his own.
“I just tried to limit his touches as much as possible,” Jackson said, “because once you let him get it going a little bit, it’s hard to stop him.”
Not as hard as it was to stop Maye on this weekend. And because of it, the Tar Heels are one step closer to winning the national championship that so painfully eluded them a year ago.
“I pitched it back to Luke and he hit a shot,” Pinson said. “I’m glad we came out on the winning side this time. Maybe that’s a good sign.”