CHAPEL HILL — Like a matador waving a cape in front of an angry bull, there’s something about the color red — especially when it’s worn by NC State — that brings out the best in Luke Maye.
The North Carolina star has feasted on his team’s Triangle rival over the past two seasons, piling up historic numbers in both the scoring and rebounding columns while leading the Tar Heels to four straight victories.
His dominance continued at the Smith Center on Tuesday with a 31-point, 12-rebound performance in a 113-96 dismantling of the Wolfpack.
“I don’t know what it is. I can’t tell you. But he’s good against them,” teammate Cameron Johnson said. “He just goes out there, plays his normal game and then boom — points, rebounds, points, rebounds, points.”
Three of Maye’s four 30-point games at UNC have come against State. In his last four meetings with the Wolfpack, the 6-foot-8 senior has averaged 29 points and 13 rebounds per game.
His 118 points during that stretch are the most any Tar Heel has ever scored in four consecutive games against State, bettering Lennie Rosenbluth’s previous mark from 1955-57 by a full dozen.
As if Maye’s latest outburst wasn’t impressive enough, it came just a week after his worst game as a starter — an effort at Georgia Tech that saw him get called out publicly by coach Roy Williams after finishing with more turnovers (five) than points (four).
He bounced back with a double-double Saturday at Louisville before terrorizing State again with his best performance of the season. He went 15 of 17 from the floor and made all 10 of his free throw attempts, four of which came as “and-ones” after made field goals.
“I think I match up pretty well against them,” Maye said. “Just being an in-state kid, I always get fired up to play in-state schools.”
As excited as Maye must have been Tuesday at the prospect of facing the Wolfpack again, he and his Tar Heels were probably the last thing coach Kevin Keatts and his suddenly reeling team wanted to see on the opposite side of the court, considering the circumstances.
State (16-7, 4-6) was coming off a record-setting loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday in which it shot 16.7 percent from the floor and was held to just 24 points — by far its lowest total in the shot clock era.
The Wolfpack bounced back by shooting an even 50 percent (38 of 74) while bettering its point total by 72. Sophomore guard Braxton Beverly, who missed all 12 of his shots against Virginia Tech and went 0 for 9 from behind the 3-point arc, went 5 of 7 (4 of 5) to lead State with 17 points.
But as much improvement as there was, it still wasn’t nearly enough to prevent the first three-game losing streak of Keatts’ two-year tenure in Raleigh.
State’s biggest problems against UNC came on defense, where it was consistently beaten downcourt by the Tar Heels’ transition game while allowing 20 fastbreak points, and on the boards, where it was outrebounded by a whopping 41-27 margin. The shortcomings were especially glaring during a late first half surge in which UNC turned a slender 22-19 lead into 16-point halftime cushion.
The Tar Heels, dressed in 1969 style uniforms commemorating the 50th anniversary of Charlie Scott becoming their school’s first black scholarship athlete, backed that up with another spurt early in the second half to expand their advantage to as many as 28 on the way to their highest point total ever against the Wolfpack.
It was also the second most points State has given up to any opponent in its long history.
“I thought we did some really good things offensively,” Keatts said. “Unfortunately when you’re playing another high powered offensive team on their home floor, you’ve got to do a better job defensively. And we weren’t there tonight.”
While State suddenly looks like a team that’s coming apart at the seams, the Tar Heels (18-4, 8-1) are starting to take on the look of a team that’s starting to come together.
Not only is Maye finally starting to show signs of playing like he did during his All-American junior season, but freshman point guard Coby White continues to grow into his role as UNC’s primary ballhandler and on-court leader.
Even though he didn’t shoot well Tuesday, White scored 21 points. He added four assists and two steals while setting a blistering tempo that played to his team’s strength.
Virtually everyone on the court benefitted, with Johnson (17 points), Kenny Williams (17 points) and Nassir Little (10 points) all scoring in double figures. Quietly improving big man Garrison Brooks also made a significant contribution with eight points, 10 rebounds and a team-leading six assists.
“Guys are hitting their stride and chemistry is clicking,” Johnson said.
And yet, as players on both teams pointed out after the game, there’s still a lot more basketball to be played this season for either team to start celebrating or panicking.
“Coach always says our dreams and goals are bigger than beating North Carolina State on a Tuesday night in February,” Johnson said. “We want to take this thing a lot farther than that.”