Luke Maye buried the game-winning jumper with 0.3 seconds left to help North Carolina advance to its second consecutive Final Four as the No. 1 seed Tar Heels outlasted No. 2 seed Kentucky, 75-73, during Sunday’s South Regional final in Memphis.
During the insane final 10 seconds of Sunday’s game, Kentucky freshman guard Malik Monk tied the game at 73-all with a heavily-contested three-pointer at the top of the key, only to see North Carolina’s Theo Pinson take the ensuing possession down the floor to find Maye for the game-winner on the left wing.
A reserve like Maye knocking down one of the biggest shots in North Carolina history is a huge reason the program was able to reach its twentieth Final Four. North Carolina has relied on many different members of its veteran team this season and its the reason the Tar Heels will face No. 3 seed Oregon next weekend in Glendale.
Heading into 2016-17, many were asking how North Carolina was going to replace Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson and not showing respect to the returning Tar Heel veterans who helped them to last season’s national-title game.
Many became enamored by Duke’s overall talent level and jaw-dropping freshman class. However, that Blue Devil on-paper greatness never materialized into anything more than a conference-tournament title.
It was easier to talk about Villanova’s chances to repeat or Kentucky’s new crop of All-Americans than it was to jump aboard the North Carolina national championship bandwagon this season. Even Kansas got more preseason national championship hype than North Carolina, and the Jayhawks have had a recent history of exits before the Final Four.
Through all of that, North Carolina has been the steady model of consistency in the ACC this season as they’re seeing a complete rotation of experienced veterans play with total confidence.
Justin Jackson has turned into a lock first-round pick and one of the country’s most lethal scorers on the wing, while junior point guard Joel Berry II is a premier floor leader on both ends. Last season’s interior depth that was a huge plus for the Tar Heels has remained even with Johnson’s departure. Seniors Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks have both played in a lot of important games, while reserves like Maye and freshman Tony Bradley have contributed valuable minutes this season.
Even after the Tar Heels won the deepest league in the country by two full games during the regular season, it felt like other teams were getting more national title love since North Carolina exited the ACC Tournament early. The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was a bloodbath for the ACC that saw the league lose eight of its nine teams before the Sweet 16. North Carolina was just rounding into form to make another potential run at a title.
Who would have envisioned that North Carolina would be the favorite for the national championship entering Final Four weekend at any point this season? That’s what we’re looking at as we move to Glendale next week, and there were plenty of warning signs about this team’s greatness and ability to handle adversity during Sunday’s win over Kentucky.
North Carolina fans panicked in the first half when Berry went to the locker room to deal with a lingering ankle issue. The Tar Heels were able to withstand until Berry’s return later in the first half as reserves like Maye, Nate Britt, Stillman White and Bradley contributed enough to keep a lead in Berry’s absence.
Finding themselves down by five points late in the second half as Kentucky had all of the momentum, North Carolina’s offense didn’t resort to rushing into bad shots. Just like the Arkansas game in the second round, the Tar Heels regained the advantage in the final minutes by going on a 12-0 run at just the right time.
North Carolina’s defense was also consistently strong on Sunday as Jackson and Pinson were both standouts as perimeter defenders. After seeing Monk and fellow freshman De’Aaron Fox combine for 71 points during Kentucky’s December win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, Jackson helped contain Monk to 12 points on Sunday while Fox was limited to 13 points.
In the most important game of the season, the Tar Heels overcame their starting point guard not playing at 100 percent and rallied in the final five minutes to win against a top-10 team.
That being said, there are plenty of storylines to follow in the Final Four that are going to be more fun to track than the Tar Heels returning for a second straight year.
America loves the underdog story of No. 7 seed South Carolina. Gonzaga making it to the Final Four for the first time is another intriguing subplot. Oregon making the Final Four from the west coast means there are two teams trying to break the region’s title-less streak that has been around since 1997.
But it would be foolish to, once again, overlook North Carolina and everything they’ve accomplished to reach this point. Even Sunday’s hero, Luke Maye, went from being a player that Roy Williams wanted to be a walk-on to now having his own “Maye Madness” nickname.
Williams made the mistake of undervaluing his own player and it almost came back to bite him. It’s the same lesson America should apply when appreciating everything that North Carolina has done during back-to-back memorable seasons.