Less than two minutes into Tuesday night’s 93-85 win against Syracuse, Luke Maye proved his worth to North Carolina without touching the basketball.
UNC trailed, 5-2, when Syracuse’s Frank Howard missed a 3-pointer at the top of the key. In the ensuing scrum for the rebound, Maye’s defender, Paschal Chukwu, hit the floor.
As teammate Kenny Williams secured the defensive rebound, Maye turned around, head down, and took off. He ran directly down the middle of the court, into the Orange’s 2-3 zone that was now down a man. In doing so, he forced Syracuse into an impossible situation: defend him, or defend Garrison Brooks.
The Orange chose the former, and Williams found Brooks wide open under the basket — slam dunk.
It was plays like those that defined Maye’s impact for UNC (23-5, 13-2 ACC), which has won 11 of its last 12 ACC games. On a night where he didn’t score much — nine points on 2-12 shooting — he made his presence known in other ways: 37 minutes, a game-high 12 rebounds and, most notably, a career-high six assists.
“I think I was just trying to make plays and do what I needed to do,” Maye said. “Kind of make sure that everybody was moving, the ball was moving and everybody was getting to the right spots.”
In a first half where North Carolina shot poorly from the field (10-27) and 3-point line (4-15), the senior helped the Tar Heels hang around — and that started down low.
Zone defenses are often seen as softer, with more openings for drives, but Maye said Syracuse’s was an “aggressive” one. UNC took advantage, drawing 14 fouls and making 19 of 21 free throws in the first half. The Tar Heels also had six offensive and 19 total rebounds in the first 20 minutes.
“We tried to make sure that we attacked and got into positions where it's successful for us,” said Maye, who had seven first-half points, off a layup and five free throws. “And I thought we did that.”
First-year Coby White stole the show again, especially so in the second half where he had 19 points alone. Cameron Johnson, who finished with 16 points, was also shooting well. That gave Maye an opportunity to help North Carolina in other ways — a challenge he readily accepted.
“I thought Luke was important for us in the middle of the zone and rebounding the basketball, too,” said head coach Roy Williams, who also commended the career-high six assists in his opening statement.
Throughout the game, Maye worked the high-post area, a natural opening in the 2-3 zone. He was patient, with only one turnover in a tie for a team-high 37 minutes. At times, he served simply as an outlet for a guard to feed a pass to and get it right back. Other times, he’d turn toward the basket and attack.
His assists were split evenly, with three per half, and most were quite timely. In the first half, he found Johnson for a 3-pointer that cut Syracuse’s lead to 15-14 and forced a timeout. He later hit first-year Nassir Little, who had sealed a defender down low, for a tough layup and the forward’s first points of the game.
After halftime, he hit White for a 3-pointer to tie things at 49-49. Then gave a soft pass overhead to his good friend Williams, whose dunk gave UNC a 51-49 lead. He later fed White for another 3-pointer — one of four he made in the second half.
“Everybody adjusted, kind of made plays the way we needed to,” Johnson said of Maye. “I thought that was big for him to have 12 and six outside of his scoring.”
It was a stark contrast to his game against Duke last week, only the second 30-point, 15-rebound performance ever against a No. 1-ranked team. It wasn’t the 15 and 11 he followed up with against Florida State, either.
But Maye’s performance on Tuesday night hinted at both his versatility, and his team’s.
“It's not all about points …” Maye said. “I just missed some shots tonight. Sometimes, it goes like that, and I try to do more things than just score.”
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