Surely no Kentucky fan needs a reminder about what happened the last time UK played North Carolina. But in case you’ve forgotten, Luke Maye hit the game-winning shot with 0.3 seconds left to give UNC a 75-73 victory in the 2017 South Region Finals.
The dramatic finish inspired none other than Christian Laettner to tweet praise of Maye the following day. His tweet read:
“Luke my son ... May the force of the #32 be with you.”
Yes, Maye wears No. 32, as did Laettner when his buzzer-beating shot famously gave Duke a victory and broke Kentucky’s heart in a NCAA Tournament region finals 25 years earlier.
UK freshman Ashton Hagans was watching the telecast when Maye made the winning shot.
“It felt like a heart-breaking game when he hit that shot,” Hagans said before adding, “I hope that doesn’t happen to us.”
Maye became an instant icon. Upon being recognized, or when his name is announced in the UNC starting lineup, fans will yell “Luuuuuke.”
“Sometimes it gets to be a lot,” The News & Observer reported Maye saying in June of his fame.
Maye, a 6-foot-8 senior forward, has had a stranger-than-fiction college career. In a span of three years, he went from a projected walk-on recruit to unlikely NCAA Tournament hero to All-ACC player.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari gave Maye what might be his ultimate compliment.
“He plays as hard as he can every possession,” Calipari said Thursday.
Maye, who is North Carolina’s third-leading scorer (14.3 points per game) and leading rebounder (10.1), posts up for scores. He also shoots the three-pointer (10 of 32). Calipari noted that Maye has also added a fadeaway shot.
“But here’s the best thing ...,” Calipari said. “He just works harder than the other guy. ... Whoever is playing him can’t take possessions off.”
Maye went through the NBA Draft process last spring. He worked out with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Hornets.
“The biggest thing I learned is just how I can develop and get better, mainly on the defensive end,” Maye told The News & Observer. “And also try to continue to become more of a playmaker offensively.”
But for all the celebrity and calls of “Luuuuuke,” Maye’s game is not showtime.
“He’s not going to outrun you (or) outjump you even though he’s a better athlete than you think,” Calipari said. “He’s a grinder.”
A player to keep an eye on might be North Carolina freshman point guard Coby White.
“They play through their point guard a lot,” Calipari said. “That position is vital for them.”
White, whose 3,573 points set a North Carolina high school record, follows a line of UNC point guards that includes Ty Lawson, Kendall Marshall, Phil Ford, Kenny Smith and Marcus Paige.
“He plays the point guard position, and our philosophy and our style of play, if there is one position more important than the others, it would be that one because he’s the person who decides what offense we’re running, what defense we’re running,” Williams said. “I give him some help, probably more so as a freshman than I do the guys who have been juniors and seniors playing the spot.”
White ranks second in scoring (15.2 points), total assists (35), three-pointers (21) and free-throw attempts (36).
“He also sets an example because he’s gifted,” Williams said of White. “He can score. I’ve loved scoring point guards. Kendall Marshall wasn’t necessarily a scoring point guard. Whereas Ty Lawson really was. But both of them were pretty effective. So I’m not against that by any means. I like the fact that he can score. He’s OK defensively. He’s going to be good defensively. He’s pretty far ahead of a lot of freshmen at this stage. But he’s extremely important to us.”
North Carolina leads the on again-off again series 24-15. The Tar Heels have beaten Kentucky more often than half the present SEC programs: Mississippi State (20), Auburn (19), Ole Miss (13), South Carolina (12), Arkansas (11), Texas A&M (four) and Missouri (one).
Another victory will move North Carolina within one of two other SEC teams: Georgia (26) and LSU (26).
UK over UNC
In the recruiting competition for EJ Montgomery, Kentucky beat North Carolina.
“They were on my top list,” Montgomery said of the Tar Heels. “One of my teams that was recruiting me really hard.”
Kentucky seemed the better fit, he said.
Brad Nessler, Bill Raftery and sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl will call the game for CBS. Tip-off is scheduled for about 5:15 p.m. EST