MEMPHIS– With the game on the line and North Carolina’s championship contentions in the air, an unlikely star arose in the game’s most crucial moment.
Tied at 73 with less than 10 seconds remaining in the game, UNC guard Theo Pinson drove down the lane and passed the ball to sophomore forward Luke Maye, who prior to Sunday’s match averaged just 5.5 points per game, and he tossed a potentially game-winning shot over two Kentucky defenders.
As the ball traveled from Maye’s fingertips, the crowd at the FedExForum deepened its breath, for the Huntersville, North Carolina, native’s shot would determine the Tar Heels’ fate.
Fortunately, a resounding “swish” would sound, and the UNC crowd in attendance erupted with elation, as their chances of capturing a National Championship remained in the balance with their 75-73 victory.
“I just kind of stepped back, (Pinson) gave me the ball, and I just shot it and luckily it went in,” said Mayes. “It was a great feeling. I’m very blessed to have had this opportunity.”
Prior to Maye’s game-winning basket, the Tar Heels were in danger of elimination. Down 64-59, UNC’s momentum was in the hands of Kentucky, as guard De’Aaron Fox and forward Edrice Adebayo re-established the Wildcats’ offense, combining for 26 points and 11 rebounds.
UNC was unraveling midway through the second half, which forced coach Roy Williams to make a late game adjustment at the six minute mark. UNC switched to a matchup zone, and the transition allowed the Tar Heels to regain their command of the game and eliminate the Wildcats’ penetration inside.
“We tried to see if we could give them a different look,” said Williams. “They were getting too much dribble penetration. We made some good plays.”
Many of their plays were attributed to their physical presence, especially on the defensive end. UNC out-muscled Kentucky’s big men, utilizing their physicality to their advantage, especially senior center Kennedy Meeks, who collected 17 of the team’s 31 rebounds and four blocks. They out rebounded them; deflected their attempts inside; and forced them to settle for mid-range and three point shots.
“We did not quite execute,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. “We weren’t in the spots we needed to be.”
UNC’s prolific shooting and tenacious defense maintained the Wildcats’ explosive offense in the final minutes. They didn’t allow Kentucky to register a field goal for the last four minutes of the game, until both Fox and Monk hit late game threes to tie the game at 73-73 with 7.6 seconds left in the game.
In response, Pinson drove the ball in the lane, drawing in Maye’s defender to leave him open on the outside. When Pinson reached the left elbow of the free throw line, he passed to Maye, who elevated and hit the go-ahead basket with 0.3 seconds left to seal UNC’s victory and their 20th Final Four appearance.