By Turner Walston
Tie game, after Malik Monk's three-pointer fell through the net with 7.2 seconds to play. Theo Pinson streaks down the right side of the court, then cuts toward the middle. De'Aaron Fox and Derek Willis follow him into the lane. Pinson tosses the ball to Luke Maye. Step back, feet set, rise, shot. The Wildcats' Isaiah Briscoe leaps with an outstretched arm to try to get just a piece. But no. Pure stroke. Pure net. Pure elation.
You know the play of the game. You know the Most Outstanding Player of the South Regional. The headlines and the highlights, the splashes on the sports pages will feature Maye, and deservedly so. The sophomore came into the weekend averaging 5.1 points per game; he poured in 33 in two games in Memphis. Maye's shot immediately joins Walter's long two, Dudley's steal, Marvin's bank shot, Marcus' three, Michael's jumper, Rick's lay-up, Jerry's dunk in the annals of Carolina history. It'll be in the highlight reel before player introductions at the Smith Center next season, and probably for years to come. CBS and Turner will use it in promos for the NCAA Tournament. It was that big.
The Tar Heels wanted this opportunity. Maye told his father, former Tar Heel quarterback Mark Maye, that the team wanted another shot at Kentucky, and they got it. "This is what it's all about," the proud father said afterward. "For it to work out like that, it's neat."
It was neat (an understatement if there ever was one). But to get there, to position Maye to take and make that shot, for Carolina to earn a two-point win over the team that beat them by three in Las Vegas 99 days ago, the Tar Heels had to make many, many plays along the way. Maye's shot will get the glory, but without the little things, the Tar Heels aren't planning a trip to Phoenix this week.
Not five minutes into Sunday's game, Joel Berry sprained his ankle when landing awkwardly. Freshman guard Seventh Woods collected two fouls within 35 seconds into his time, and on came Stilman White. Five years and three days since his first career start, in the 2012 Sweet Sixteen game against Ohio, five years and a day since his second career start in the Elite Eight against Kansas, on came Stilman White. Yes, White was a freshman on that 2012 team that featured Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Kendall Marshall. When Marshall suffered a wrist injury against Creighton in the second round, on came Stilman White. After serving a two-year Mormon mission from 2013-15, White is now a senior.
He got a rebound a minute into his time in the game. He drew two fouls on De'Aaron Fox, who lit up UCLA for 39 points two nights earlier. White knew he would be tested by the Wildcats. "Some guys that they didn't probably expect on the scouting report, when they come in, they try and be a little more aggressive on, but you can't back down," he said. "I knew Fox was a great defender and he was going to come up and press on me, but I just wanted to be strong with the ball and attack him. Fox would sit for 12 minutes after his second foul.
White went up and under for a reverse lay-up for two points –the game's final margin. In two minutes and 55 seconds of game time, and five years after his first NCAA Tournament action, Stilman White made his presence felt.
Carolina kept Kentucky at an arm's length in the first half, and they did it thanks to quick answers. The Tar Heels jumped out to a 6-0 lead, and the Wildcats could not close. Eight seconds after Dominique Hawkins cut the lead to two with a pair of free throws, Tony Bradley scored on a Woods assist. Nine seconds after Monk scored in the lane to trim it again, Maye hit a three-pointer. Thirteen seconds after a Hawkins three, Justin Jackson answered with a field goal. Joel Berry scored ten seconds after another Hawkins three. Jackson drew a foul after a Briscoe lay-up. In the first period, at least, the Tar Heels were able to temper the partisan Kentucky crowd. Maye's dunk with 3:26 left in the half was Carolina's last basket before the break, and yet they took a five-point lead into intermission.
Kennedy Meeks established a new career high with 17 rebounds, with five of them coming on the offensive end, and all of those in the second half. Those led directly to five Meeks points, and his defensive rebounds took away 12 second-chance opportunities for Kentucky. "I told the guys last night during our snack that I would do whatever I have to do to get the win, and I think me hitting the boards, me playing great defense definitely helped," he said. "I really wasn't worried about scoring as much. I'll leave that to Justin and those guys, but that was my main objective, to hit the offensive glass and box out on the defensive end. Great night for us."
It almost wasn't. Late in the game, Kentucky scored six straight points in two minutes to take a five-point lead at 64-59. Roy Williams called timeout with 5:03 to play. He told his team that they'd been here before, a week ago, against Arkansas. The Tar Heels trailed by five then and would score 12 straight to close out the Razorbacks. "I didn't like the look on their faces, so I started yelling at them, but I was trying to yell positive messages," Williams said of his huddle. "I said, 'In the Arkansas game, we were down five, and this is going to help us, because we're going to come back, and let's get the best shot we can and then try to guard, and then let's get the best shot we can, and try to get a defensive stop. I said, it worked out. We've got the same situation. You have shown that you can do this.' So I tried to be really positive with them at that point."
They did it just like Williams drew it up. A Pinson jumper, and a defensive rebound. A one-handed Jackson floater from the free-throw line bounced off the back iron and in. A Meeks block on the other end leading to a runout and two Pinson free throws. In 101 seconds, they'd re-taken the lead, and they didn't stop there. Another defensive rebound after Pinson hounded Fox, and two Maye free throws. A Maye rebound and then Berry off the glass over Isaac Humphries. Ten straight points, and a Kentucky timeout.
The Wildcats band played Michael Jackson's 'Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough,' and neither team was about to. Fox hit a three, and then another Kentucky timeout. Meeks couldn't get the ball in, leading to a five-second violation, and Monk got Pinson airborne before nailing another three. But another answer, as Maye found Jackson for a fast-break lay-up within five seconds.
Carolina led by three at 73-70 with 17 seconds to play, and then Pinson poked the ball free from Bam Adebayo to lead to a tie-up. "I was going to intentionally foul him just to not let him get the ball up, and I was like, 'Just make a play on the ball,'" Pinson said, "and when I came across, I got a good hand on it Got all ball. Kennedy dove on the floor, Luke got the ball, jump ball, it was our ball. That was another big play. It was a wild game."
Of course, that didn't quite seal it, as Jackson would miss the front end of a one-and-one, leading to Monk's game-tying three pointer. But that was all prelude. We got back to Pinson streaking down the court, the clock ticking down.
"I was definitely like, 'I'm about to make a play and win this game for us,'" the junior said. "But at the same time, it's in my nature . . . Making a play is not just scoring. Making a play is for other people. Once I saw Willis commit to me –which, I would have had a dead lay-up– I just pitched it back to Luke, and he was wide open."
"Theo just drove down court and kind of was penetrating toward the basket, and kind of picked my man a little bit," Maye said. "I just kind of stepped back and he gave me the ball, and I just shot it, and luckily, it went in."
Maye's teammates didn't think luck had much to do with it. "We all saw it," Isaiah Hicks said. "We were like, 'Yes, that's in!' Everybody was already cheering before it went in, kind of."
"When Luke shot it, I knew it was good," said Nate Britt. "Luke wants the big moment. He wants to take the big shots, and that's what he does in practice. He knocks down the shot all the time."
Maye's dad watched from the stands, not trying to overthink it, not watching as a quarterback, but as a father seeing it play out. "I didn't see it setting up," Mark Maye said. "I was just kind of wondering, 'What's going on?' and then he had a shot. I'm excited for the team, excited for Luke and all the guys."
Rightly, Luke Maye will get the "Luuuuuke"s and the head taps and the pats on the back. His shot sent Carolina to Phoenix and a second straight Final Four. It gave the team a chance to finish the job, to capture the title that they came so tantalizingly close to a year ago. But without the little things, without every single small play, every rebound, every block and steal, every assist and indeed every point, the table is not set for his shot.
"We've got the right type of guys who just love each other and just want to make plays for each other and just want to keep this ride going," Pinson said. "We've been here before. We understand what it takes, but at the same time, you know us, we're going to be in the moment. We're going to enjoy this thing until it ends, and hopefully that's with a national championship."
This team has been preaching redemption for 2016 since the season began, since time expired in Houston last April. They've been committed to finishing every step along the way to have the opportunity now before them. The Tar Heels will need to continue to commit to every play, and they have the team, the coach, the mindset to do just that. It showed up in Memphis. They'll need it in Phoenix.