Luke Maye is a preseason first-team All-America selection and preseason ACC Player of the Year. So far this season, he hasn't lived up to that hype.
He was largely absent in North Carolina’s (8-2) two biggest tests of the season, combining for 22 points on 9-of-27 shooting in losses to Texas and Michigan. Maye put the blame for those losses firmly on the shoulders of the team’s veteran leaders: himself, Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson.
“We didn’t lead well against Texas, we did not lead well against Michigan, we came out a little flat in the second half,” Maye said.
Maye also knows his own performance hasn't lived up to expectations this season.
“I feel like I’ve struggled a little bit early,” he said. "Just trying to find my shot and make sure to get to those right spots.”
For the first time all season, Maye looked to be in peak form, posting 20 points and 16 rebounds, all while sharing defensive duties on one of the best big men in the country, Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura.
Maye’s performance — alongside that of Johnson, who scored 25 points on 6-of-8 shooting from 3-point range — drove UNC to its first statement win of the season. It also showed just how good the Tar Heels can be when Maye plays the way that got him named preseason ACC Player of the Year.
Maye’s 20 points were crucial and included big plays at the end of the game to put Gonzaga’s comeback attempt to bed. With two minutes remaining and UNC’s lead down to 11 points, Maye cut through traffic, caught a pass from Williams, and converted a layup while drawing a foul.
“That was one of the plays that, it puts them away,” Williams said. “We needed that.”
While Maye's scoring was important, UNC did not lack for points Saturday night. The Tar Heels put up 103, and Johnson, Coby White and even Seventh Woods also chipped in double digits. Maye's biggest impact came on the boards.
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few cited UNC's rebounding ability as the biggest difference maker after the game.
"They pounded us on the glass," he said.
UNC pulled in 14 offensive rebounds and created 27 second-chance points. With 16 total boards of his own and three offensive rebounds, Maye crashed the glass the hardest for North Carolina.
Williams was not surprised by Maye's 16 rebounds.
"That's what he does," Williams said. "He's undersized, but I don't know how he ends up with 16 rebounds a game ... but it's definitely no surprise at all."
Forward Sterling Manley, who is 6-foot-11, was impressed by the 6-foot-8 Maye's rebounding ability.
"He may not be able to jump over somebody or be the fastest on the team, but he's going to do his work early and play to his strengths," he said.
His rebounding was timeliest in the closing minutes of the game. After sitting for three minutes due to foul trouble, Maye came in and quickly secured four rebounds. One was a tip out on a missed free throw that led to a made 3-pointer from White.
One minute later, Maye pulled down another offensive board, this time to set up the and-1 that put Gonzaga away. With those two rebounds alone, Maye created six extra points for UNC.
Oh, and that free throw he made? It was for his 1,000th career point. He became just the 78th player in a UNC uniform to cross that threshold.
That's quite the accomplishment for a one-time walk-on, a player who was ranked 97th by ESPN in his recruiting class.
"There's not a lot of people that thought I would get to 1,000," Maye said, "but I had confidence in myself, and I knew coach had confidence in me."
The milestone is a validation of the work Maye has put in since his arrival at UNC, just as his performance Saturday night was the first step towards validating the lofty expectations placed on Maye this season. Maye will tell you that his individual performance isn't important.
"This year, as long as we continue to win big games like this, it doesn't matter how I play," he said.
But in order for UNC to beat teams like Gonzaga, the Tar Heels need vintage Luke Maye. When he is at his best, UNC is dangerous.
"I'm sure he feels like he hasn't played the best this year," Williams said. "But it he continues to play like that, we'll be scary."