MEMPHIS — Go ahead: call it a miracle. It sounds right, doesn’t it? Luke Maye, who walked on to the North Carolina basketball team, responded to a game-tying three-pointer from Kentucky’s Malik Monk with a game-winner of his own, sending the Tar Heels back to the Final Four. It stunned the crowd here and made Maye the talk of the nation, but you know what? North Carolina does not really believe in miracles.
Luck, sure—Roy Williams tells his team sometimes that you need a little luck. But mostly, North Carolina believes in basketball. Smart, complete, fundamentally sound basketball. That’s what Dean Smith taught Roy and what Roy teaches his team every year, and it’s what you saw here in the final seconds.
The two most storied programs in the sport had played a wild game, occasionally sloppy but always riveting, and then Monk had drained a game-tying three-pointer, because he is Malik Monk and this is what he does. Monk could sink three-pointers with his eyes closed and handcuffs on while undergoing a root canal. His shot tied the score at 73–73.
Kentucky fans went crazy, but North Carolina players knew what North Carolina players have known for five decades: Their coach would not call timeout. Dean didn’t. Roy doesn’t. Why give the defense a chance to set up? Take advantage of the chaos.
North Carolina inbounded to Theo Pinson. He had missed the last game these teams played, a 103–100 Kentucky win, and here was Pinson’s chance to be the hero. But he didn’t think about being a hero. He thought about the right basketball play, and he saw right away that Kentucky was scrambling. Isaiah Briscoe had been guarding Pinson, but when the ball was inbounded, he was too far away from Pinson. Wildcats freshman De’Aaron Fox picked up Pinson and shadowed him down the court.
Pinson had seven seconds to win the game. He packed so much intelligence into those seven seconds. He surveyed the floor, pushing the ball, knowing Fox could not risk fouling him. As Pinson passed midcourt, he glanced at the game clock. He had a little more than four seconds left. He dribbled toward the middle, he said later, “to put pressure on both sides.” He saw Kentucky’s Derek Willis moving to double-team him, and there was Luke Maye, getting open …
Maybe you looked at Maye and saw a big white guy, a former walk-on amid the five-star recruits. Pinson saw the guy he calls “Kevin Love.” The 6' 8" Maye is a shooter’s shooter, a guy who ought to get his mail delivered to the team’s practice facility. The Tar Heels have seen him hit this shot hundreds of times in practice.
Pinson believed in Maye, and Maye knew Pinson believed in Maye. After Maye scored 16 points against Butler in the Sweet 16, Pinson told him it was good to have K-Love in the game. The next day, North Carolina forward Kennedy Meeks told Maye: “Keep it going.”
Pinson decided to pass. But he wasn’t done being smart. He dribbled left, giving Maye an easier pass to handle—not quite a handoff, more of a lateral—and putting himself between Kentucky’s defenders and Maye. He wanted Maye to get the cleanest look he could.
As Maye rose with the ball, North Carolina star Justin Jackson noticed something: “He slowed down.” Maye was not rushing. He was replicating the form that he had honed in all of those practices. There were 0.3 seconds on the clock when the shot dropped.
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Kentucky called timeout, and here is what the Tar Heels were not thinking about: Villanova, Kris Jenkins, and Marcus Paige. They admitted later that the similarities were amazing. In last year’s national championship game, UNC’s Paige hit a three to tie the game, and then Jenkins came down the floor and hit a shot to win it. Heck, Jenkins was even in the building this weekend, sitting behind the bench, cheering on his brother (though not, technically, by blood), the Tar Heels’ Nate Britt. But so what?
“I’m gonna be honest,” Jackson said. “I don’t think last year has anything to do with this year. We never think about Kris’s shot or playing Villanova in the championship game. We just focus in on Kentucky.”
As the players walked to their huddles, Monk smiled. It was not the smile of confidence from a shooter who had one more chance. And it was not the smile of a 19-year-old who will surely leave Kentucky and make an obscene fortune in the NBA and doesn’t need two more games to prove anything. No. This was a rueful smile—an I-can’t-believe-we-just-did-that smile.
The beauty of this Kentucky team was that its two freshman stars, Fox and Monk, care like seniors. Monk knew the Wildcats had let up, just for a moment, and it was the worst possible moment.
Kentucky tried for a miracle—with 0.3 seconds left, that’s what it would have been—but the inbound pass sailed over the whole court and out of bounds. North Carolina inbounded and it was over.
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In the Kentucky locker room afterward, Monk and Fox showed why the NBA general managers who pick them should sleep well on draft night. They were crushed but mature.
Unlike UCLA’s Lonzo Ball two nights earlier, they did not immediately announce their NBA plans. Monk was honest (“We had a bunch of mental breakdowns”), caring (“I love everybody on this team”) and deferential (“There’s only one best team in the country, and it’s whoever is going to win the national championship.”). When he was asked what the Wildcats were thinking on Maye’s shot, he said, “I don’t think we were thinking. That’s why he got the shot off.”
But Monk refused to blame Willis or anybody else. When he was asked about his assignment on the last play, he said “Not let Jackson catch the ball,” then quickly added: “But we all—it was just a team effort on the last play. So we can’t just hang somebody out. We weren’t focused.”
Fox was in tears. Remember that the next time somebody says all these one-and-done guys are just passing through.
“I can’t even describe it, man,” Fox said. “We all wanted to go to Phoenix. We all had mutual goals. We wanted to win a championship.”
Monk said “They just wanted it more I guess,” but he knows that isn’t really true. This was not about want. There was plenty of that on both sides. This was just college basketball in March: Players have a few seconds to make quick decisions they will remember for a lifetime. North Carolina won because Kentucky hesitated, Roy Williams trusted, Theo Pinson knew what to do, and Luke Maye …
Luke Maye. He is a former walk-on, sure. But he was never a scrub. He was recruited. He chose North Carolina because he grew up in Huntersville, N.C., the child of two Carolina grads, shooting on a hoop outside his house. His parents did not push him to Chapel Hill. But it was what he wanted.
And that shot was what he wanted, too. Maye knew Williams did not see him as a walk-on, and his teammates did not see him as a walk-on. He never would have played if he had been content being a walk-on. Maye said afterward that “I couldn’t even have imagined something like that,” but the truth is that he has imagined that shot a thousand times, from childhood to Sunday night, and that is why it went in.