RALEIGH — After seeing its 28-18 first-half lead evaporate, the North Carolina men's basketball team needed a spark.
N.C. State, in just over six minutes, had ignited its home crowd with a 19-0 run and led 37-28. Within that same run, UNC missed 13 consecutive field goals.
Saturday's game was the last in a weeklong run of significant victories that lifted the No. 21 men's basketball team out of their three-game losing streak.
A short seven-point burst narrowed the Tar Heels' halftime deficit to 37-35. But the momentum in PNC Arena was still, without a doubt, in the hands of the Wolfpack. Enter junior forward Luke Maye, who carried North Carolina to a 96-89 win.
“Coach just challenged me to come out and be aggressive and continue to play hard,” he said. “I missed a lot of easy ones the first half, and (I was) just trying to get back in a rhythm.”
Maye immediately went to work in the second half. He opened with a driving lefty layup. Then, he changed it up by taking a Theo Pinson entry pass on the left block, dribbling once toward the free-throw line and sinking a fade-away jumper.
On UNC's next offensive possession, Joel Berry II pushed the ball and missed a pull-up jump shot. But Maye was there to clean it up, tipping the ball in with his left hand for his fifth and sixth consecutive points. North Carolina (19-7, 8-5 ACC) had its first lead since the 5:36 mark of the first half.
“I just challenged myself to get out there and take it to the basket,” Maye said. “Once I got some easy ones, I just started shooting it and they started falling.”
His fourth second-half field goal was even more impressive. As Berry dribbled the ball up the court, Maye waved his hands and caught a pass in stride. Then came a jab step to the left, one dribble and a heat-check 3-pointer over defender Omer Yurtseven.
Maye’s game-breaking ability has been well-documented this season. But on Saturday, he was fearless. The Tar Heels' leading scorer put up 27 of his 33 points in the final 20 minutes of the game.
“He’s a great kid to play with,” teammate Cameron Johnson said. “Just a very unselfish attitude, and he’s very firm in that. So that’s not going away any time soon. I mean, you might have to get Kawhi Leonard out here to stop him or something.”
He was the centerpiece of the most efficient half of UNC basketball under head coach Roy Williams, in terms of percentage. The Tar Heels scored 61 points, made 25 of 32 of field goals and grabbed offensive rebounds on five of their seven misses. The 78.1-percent mark was also North Carolina's best shooting half since Jan. 8, 2000.
Maye did earn one major demerit, however – turnovers. He led the team with six.
UNC finished with 19 turnovers, tied for its most in a game this season (also in a 61-49 loss at Virginia). This came two days after the Tar Heels tied a school record with just two turnovers against Duke. Part of the sloppiness came from the speed of the game. The pace was unrelenting, especially in the second half as the two teams combined for 113 points.
Each time North Carolina started to pull away, N.C. State (16-9, 6-6 ACC) came right back with a posterizing dunk or a huge three to get the crowd rocking. This is where Maye truly began to assert himself.
At the under-eight media timeout, an Allerik Freeman 3-pointer had slimmed UNC's lead to 67-65. Maye grabbed an offensive rebound and drove in for a contested layup, then used a hard pump-fake to shake a defender and notch an and-one layup. Now, he wanted an exclamation point.
Maye caught an inbounds pass, took two dribbles and, with 10 seconds remaining on the shot clock, sank an NBA-range 3-pointer. He skipped back on defense, raising both his hands in a rare celebration.
“He had pulled and shot it … and I said, ‘Oh my God,’” Williams recalled. “But it went in, so I said, ‘Good shot.’ I thought Luke was sensational.”
Maye shot 12-14 in the second half and had 15 field goals for the game, the most by a player under Williams. He had 17 rebounds, one off his career high, and eight offensive rebounds, one more than N.C. State's entire team.
Before Saturday afternoon, there were three players in UNC basketball history with multiple 30-point, 15-rebound games in the same season: Lennie Rosenbluth (1954-57), Billy Cunningham (1962-65) and Mitch Kupchak (1972-76). All three have jerseys hanging in the Smith Center's rafters.
Maye's aggression seems at an all-time high as UNC enters its final five ACC games.
“Man, when it’s falling like that, you just continue to play," Maye said. "The basketball gods are looking out for you."
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