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The Daily Tar Heel

Unlikely hero Luke Maye sends UNC men's basketball to Final Four with buzzer beater

But it was, or rather is, and now always will be.

Rewind back to that moment: How, in the midst of a funnel of navy blue shirts and with an entire orchestra of boos serenading the North Carolina men’s basketball team, the most unlikely of players found himself with the ball — and his team’s season — in his sweaty palms; how, with precious seconds left on the clock against Kentucky on Saturday night and the score tied at 73, a former walk-on had to take the shot that would steer the destiny of his entire team; how Luke Maye, the son of a UNC sports hero in his own right, had a chance to send the Tar Heels to their second consecutive Final Four.

And he made it.

“I just shot it,” Maye said. “Luckily it went in.”

For a second, it didn’t appear he’d have to take a shot at all. Kentucky’s Malik Monk, he of the 47-point supernova against the Tar Heels when the teams first met this season, almost ensured the sequel would go to overtime.

With 7.2 seconds left to play and Kentucky down three, he slid around Maye and Justin Jackson and pulled up from three. Monk’s shot was wobbly, off-kilter — but it, too, went in.

As the tying heave dropped through the net, FedExForum powered on like it hadn’t all night. Swaths of Kentucky fans, anxiously clutching their breaths and their sodas and one another, all roared to life at once.

Still, there was time. UNC just had to use it wisely.

And after being burned in the reverse situation in last season’s national championship game, they were fully prepared to do so.

Kennedy Meeks, who notched a career-high 17 rebounds, scooped the ball up and inbounded it to Theo Pinson, already starting to run down the court. No timeouts, no setup — just going.

Pinson drove the length of the floor, a second gone with almost every stride he made. Kentucky players, with a congregation of thousands praising their names, blocked his path to the basket — maybe there wasn’t enough time for him to lay it in. Maybe this wasn’t supposed to be.

“When I got the ball, I was like, ‘I’m about to make a play and win this game for us,’” Pinson said. “But making a play isn’t just scoring.”

Without a shot of his own, Pinson swiveled, and there, looking back at him from underneath a set of scraggly eyebrows, was Maye.

“I could’ve shot it,” Pinson said. “Luke was wide open, spotting up.”

He dumped the ball back to Maye and waited. Watched as time seemingly froze, the basketball hurtling through the air, the only thing moving in that snapshot of an instant.

Then he watched it go in, watched a historic shot unfold in front of him.

And then he watched the celebration unfold — Maye bear-hugging Joel Berry and scooping him off the floor; the hugs and high-fives and absolute calamity unraveling on the UNC bench as the team realized it had earned a bevy of plane tickets to Phoenix for the Final Four.

“The one person probably nobody expected to hit a game-winner,” Isaiah Hicks said, “and he made it.”

Maye finished the game with a career-high 17 points, none bigger than those last two. And he was rewarded for it, earning Most Outstanding Player honors in the South region — ahead of his teammates Jackson and Berry.

When it was announced over the intercom that Maye won MVP, he was in the middle of a scrum with reporters. He never stopped answering questions, even then. A small grin was all he afforded himself.

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But seconds later, Kenny Williams interrupted the interviews, the regional trophy in his arms. He passed the award to Maye and patted him on the back as he walked away.

“Hey, hold this,” Williams said. “You earned this one.”