MEMPHIS — In a rematch of college basketball's most exciting game this season, Luke Maye hit a long 2-pointer with 0.3 seconds to cap off a thrilling win for the North Carolina men's basketball team over Kentucky and send the Tar Heels to the Final Four in Phoenix.
The No. 1 seed Tar Heels (31-7) jumped out to an early 6-0 lead before the No. 2 seed Wildcats (32-6) cut it to one behind five points from De'Aaron Fox — who scored a career-high 39 points in the Sweet 16.
But UNC's lineup started to crumble early in the half. Theo Pinson — tasked with guarding Fox — picked up two quick fouls, and Joel Berry headed to the locker room with a sprained left ankle. But the cast of Stilman White, Nate Britt, Luke Maye, Tony Bradley and Pinson staved off the Wildcats long enough for Berry to return four minutes after his injury.
When he did, eight Tar Heels had scored and the team held a five-point lead. Berry and co. slowly mounted their lead before UNC-killer Malik Monk hit a 3-pointer with 4:31 left to revitalize the pro-Kentucky crowd and cut the deficit to four. But with Monk and Fox — who sat 12 minutes with two fouls — nearly nonexistent for the Wildcats, both teams limped into halftime as the Tar Heels took a 38-33 lead after the first period.
North Carolina's offense went cold, missing 10 straight shots between both halves, and a quick six-point run gave Kentucky its first lead of the game. But after two free throws from Meeks reclaimed the lead, a 4-point play from Justin Jackson dragged UNC's offense out of its funk. A few minutes later, Maye scored eight straight points to give North Carolina a 53-47 lead.
But it wouldn't last.
Four straight from Bam Adebayo pulled Kentucky within two, and both teams traded the lead for the final eight minutes. An Isaac Humphries jumper with 5:10 left put the Wildcats up by five, but UNC answered with a 12-0 run to flip the advantage.
Fox hit a 3-pointer from the left corner and Monk drilled one from the top of the key to cut the lead to one with 39 seconds left. And with his team down three, Monk hit an off-balance 3-pointer with 7.2 seconds to tie the game.
But Maye drilled a shot with his foot on the 3-point line with 0.3 seconds to send UNC to Phoenix.
Who stood out?
For the second straight game, Luke Maye had a performance to remember. After scoring a career-high 16 points points in the Sweet 16, he followed it up with 17 points against Kentucky. Head coach Roy Williams even left Isaiah Hicks on the bench in the final minutes in favor of Maye, who has been relegated to a bench role for much of the season.
And in crunch time, Maye delivered — hitting a long 2-pointer in the final second to seal the deal.
After scoring a career-high 34 points the last time these two played, Justin Jackson did all he could to change the result this time around. The ACC Player of the Year scored 19 points on 7-of-17 shooting, including a 4-point play with 15:48 left to give UNC a five-point lead.
When was it decided?
After a frantic final few minutes, Malik Monk hit a late 3-point shot that conjured memories of his 47-point performance in December.
But on the other end, Theo Pinson found a wide-open Luke Maye on the left wing, where the sophomore forward drained a long 2-pointer to give UNC the two-point win.
Why does it matter?
North Carolina sits two wins away from its ultimate goal. But the road to the Final Four is complete.
Sunday's win sends UNC to its 20th Final Four — more than any other school — and its second since winning the national championship in 2009. The Tar Heels are 10-9 in national semifinals game, including a win over Syracuse in 2016 to reach the national title game.
The victory also combats North Carolina's recent struggles against Kentucky. The Tar Heels hold a 24-15 edge over the Wildcats in the all-time series, but they had lost four of the previous five matchups dating back to the 2011 Elite Eight.
This time, UNC avenged its loss from December and punched a ticket in its second straight Final Four.
Where do they play next?
The Tar Heels are heading to Phoenix.
North Carolina will play No. 3 seed Oregon at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Saturday's national semifinals. The winner will face either No. 1 seed Gonzaga or No. 7 seed South Carolina on April 3.
The Tar Heels have played the Ducks four times before, all victories. The most recent meeting was 2008, when Tyler Hansbrough's 16 points fueled a 98-69 win. That year was the last time UNC won the title.
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