NSJ’s Play of the Year: Maye’s Kentucky-killer a shot for the ages

Former walk-on cements his legacy with buzzer-beater against Wildcats

UNC forward Luke Maye takes aim on the shot that beat Kentucky with 0.3 seconds left in last season’s NCAA South Regional championship game and sent the Tar Heels to the Final Four. (Nelson Chenault— / USA Today Sports)

There are several regular features played on the video boards at the Smith Center during every North Carolina home basketball game.

There’s the “I am a Tar Heel” reel that shows several former players affirming their love for their alma mater, and the montage in which many of those same stars read off a list of UNC’s more impressive accomplishments over the years.

Neither of those, including a climactic appearance by Michael Jordan, is greeted by a louder, more passionate roar from the crowd in attendance than the highlight of Luke Maye’s buzzer-beating shot against Kentucky in the NCAA South Regional final last March that catapulted the Tar Heels to their sixth national championship.

Maye might be one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season, putting up first-team All-ACC type numbers. But no matter how much he accomplishes during the remainder of his college career, his place in Tar Heel lore will always be directly connected to that decisive 18-foot jumper in Memphis.

It’s a shot that was chosen as the “Play of the Year” in North Carolina sports by the staff of the North State Journal.

“I definitely look back some days and feel the joy that we felt on that last Monday night and after I hit the shot against Kentucky,” Maye said a few months later. “It’s something you dream about.”

The 6-foot-8 forward, who came to UNC as a walk-on, was an unlikely candidate to become a postseason hero.

Although Maye was a regular contributor off the bench for the Tar Heels, his role was primarily that of an energy guy. He averaged just 5.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game as a backup to starter Isaiah Hicks and top reserve Tony Bradley.

He was on the court at such a critical juncture of an NCAA tournament game only because both Hicks and Bradley had gotten into foul trouble and because Hicks was in the midst of a prolonged offensive slump.

Two nights earlier in a similar situation against Butler in the Sweet 16, Maye posted the first double-double of his career with 16 points and 12 rebounds in a season-high 25 minutes. He was just as effective against Kentucky, extending his personal scoring best again — this time to 17 points.

“I put him in for a reason the other night, because I thought he could help our team,” UNC coach Roy Williams said at the time. “I thought that Isaiah was struggling and I put Luke in with 7-8 minutes left.”

It turned out to be a fortuitous decision after Kentucky rallied from a seven-point deficit in the final minute to tie the game at 73 on a 3-pointer by Malik Monk with 7.2 seconds remaining.

As is his custom, Williams eschewed calling time out, instead encouraging his team to mount an immediate counterattack.

“When they scored,” the Hall of Fame coach said, “I was just screaming go, go, go.”

The Tar Heels went so fast that Kentucky coach John Calipari, who wanted a timeout, didn’t have a chance to make the call before Kennedy Meeks inbounded the ball.

Normally point guard Joel Berry would have been the player pushing the ball up court, but because both he and second option Justin Jackson were well-covered, the job went to Pinson instead.

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 as he got to the lane.

As Pinson drove to the basket, a Kentucky defender moved into the lane to cut him off. The junior guard spotted Maye to his left out of the corner of his eye, holding his hand up to get his attention.

Maye was in the right place at the right time because he hustled down the court as Pinson advanced it and instinctively found an open spot on the left wing. He 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 of his big moment, which thrust him into the national spotlight for the first time and earned him a standing ovation from his classmates when he attended class the following morning. “I thank my teammates so much and my coach for putting me in that situation. I’m just very blessed to have this opportunity.”