MEMPHIS, TENN. — 356 days ago, North Carolina’s season came to an end in heart-breaking fashion as a buzzer-beater three from Kris Jenkins clinched the National Championship for Villanova.
Sunday night, the top-seeded Heels advanced to the Final Four in a fittingly similar fashion — only this time, Carolina was on the right end of a clutch shot.
After Kentucky’s Malik Monk hit a three with seconds remaining to tie the game, the Heels rushed down the court, where Luke Maye hit a jump shot from just inside the three-point line with just 0.3 seconds remaining on the clock to send Carolina to Phoenix.
“They made a big three. Monk hit it over my hand, and then Theo just drove down court and kind of was penetrating towards the basket and kind of picked my man a little bit,” Maye said.
“And I just kind of stepped back and he gave me the ball, and I just shot it, and luckily it went in. It was a great feeling. I thank my teammates so much and my coach for putting me in that situation.”
In a game chock-full of future NBA players, the sophomore from Huntersville, N.C., who averages just 5.5 points per game, was one of the unlikeliest of heroes.
Maye was the contest’s second-leading scorer, behind ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson (19 points), scoring 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting, three rebounds, two assists and a steal.
“Luke Maye was sensational in making baskets for us, made the big pass down court to Justin for the lay-up,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said.
“Theo made some big free throws, Luke made some big free throws, and we’re still sitting here.”
Carolina and Kentucky met previously this season — a Dec. 17 matchup won 103-100 by the Wildcats.
In that game, the Heels were unable to stop Monk, who scored 47 points on 18-for-28 shooting (8 of 12 from three).
Sunday, UNC held Monk to just 12 points, and his backcourt mate, De’Aaron Fox (24 points in the first meeting) to just 13.
“You know, for me, I knew [Monk’s] a great player, so I tried to slow him down and limit his touches as much,” Jackson said.
“I’m sure when the coaches go back and look at film, there’s going to be a lot of bad defenses of no helping. But for me, I just tried to limit his touches as much as possible because once you let him get it going a little bit, it’s hard to stop him.”
The duo had been a force to be reckoned with as of late, including combining to score 60 points against UCLA in the Sweet 16.
Despite the Monk and Fox combining for just 11 points in the first, North Carolina led just 38-33 at half.
The Heels went on a more than seven-minute field goal drought (beginning in the final few minutes of the first half) allowing Kentucky to take its first lead of the game in the second.
Carolina’s experience advantage was evident in the game’s final minutes, as the Heels were more poised and thus able to make more plays than a Kentucky team of talented freshmen.
“That’s a great team with a lot of young guys, and for them to be in that scenario against a team like us that’s a little more mature, hats off to them,” Jackson said.
“But I love these guys. You know, I wouldn’t trade this coaching staff, these knuckleheads of brothers that I’ve got, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”
Isaac Humphries (12 points, five rebounds), who entered the game averaging 2.5 points, stepped up out of nowhere and took charge for Kentucky offensively as Monk and Fox struggled.
Edrice “Bam” Adebayo pitched in, and finished the game with 13 points and seven rebounds.
Kennedy Meeks scored seven points and had a career-high 17 rebounds for the Heels.