MEMPHIS — They announced his arrival in grandiose fashion, making a marvel of his entrance after his marvel of a performance.
Or, something like that. Sort of.
“Luke,” Brandon Robinson called out, making sure to drag out the name as long as he could. “Hurry it up — the people waiting on you!”
And then he appeared, not in any spectacular fashion, but rather with a wet mop of hair stuck to his forehead and a goofy grin on his face. Robinson wasn’t wrong — it isn’t often that, on a North Carolina men’s basketball team with the ACC Player of the Year and other All-ACC-caliber players, Luke Maye commands a postgame media scrum.
Then again, it isn’t often that Maye plays the way he did Friday in No. 1 seed UNC’s 92-80 win over No. 4 seed Butler in the Sweet 16. Actually, he’s never played this way. Not once.
But when you post your first career double-double in the NCAA Tournament — 16 points (a career best) and 12 rebounds in 25 minutes — maybe it warrants an introduction like this.
So Maye grabbed a chocolate shake from one of the managers and shuffled his way through the throngs of reporters to his spot in the locker room, way back in the corner. He couldn’t hide his goofy grin. If anything, it grew, widening and widening with every new question or bit of attention.
It didn’t help, of course, that his teammates taunted him the whole time.
“Sixteen and 12?” Kennedy Meeks hollered from two lockers down. “Sheesh!”
Some kept it more subtle, like Aaron Rohlman, who flicked his tongue back and forth at Maye whenever the two made eye contact. Then the grin finally left his face, breaking out into a full laugh as Maye bowed his head in embarrassment.
But for all the postgame ribbing he endured, Maye’s performance was certainly nothing to scoff at.
The sophomore forward entered the game against Butler with UNC’s other big men already in foul trouble. He’d need to play big minutes, rebound, pass the ball — basically, not screw up the lead the Tar Heels were building. Or, at least, that’s largely been his role this season.
Except on Friday, it wasn’t. Midway through the first half, Maye drained a 3-pointer. That’s not atypical for him, as he made one or two every few games this year.
But a minute later, he made another. And then he started grabbing rebounds. This, this kind of offensive proficiency and work on the glass? Well, this was atypical.
And still, Maye wasn’t done. With 3:16 left before halftime, he pulled up from deep again. He’d never made three 3-pointers in a game before, ever — and as this try clanked off the front rim, it didn’t appear he would against the Bulldogs, either.
Until the ball dropped. Not into the arms of a waiting defender, but through the net. A lucky bounce, some might call it. Others might say a lucky night.
“I didn’t expect that one, but that was just kind of how the day was going,” Maye said. “I made a couple of shots early, and it kind of snowballed from there.”
After that third 3-pointer fell, and Maye toppled his previous career high in scoring in the first half alone, that goofy smile couldn’t be contained. Even with his mouthpiece still in, Maye turned to the UNC bench and let it flash as best he could.
Back in the locker room, questions devolve to Maye’s eating habits and obsession with ketchup. Eventually he stops trying to avoid the taunting and admits it — yes, he’s been known to put ketchup on his eggs.
His teammates laugh, and so do the last few reporters as they trickle away. Then, Maye’s teammates are finally free to swarm him for themselves. When they do, the grin comes racing back.
Maybe it won’t be going anywhere, after all.
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