Luke Maye knew he would be open. All eyes, for good reason, were on Coby White.
With the way White had been scoring at will, it’s understandable why Miami thought North Carolina’s first-year point guard would be the one attempting to tie the game for UNC on its final possession of the second half, down three to a Hurricanes team that entered Saturday’s game at the Smith Center just 2-8 in ACC play.
So when Maye set a pick for White at the top of the key, not only did Miami guard Chris Lykes follow White, who had hit six second-half 3-pointers, but so did forward Anthony Lawrence II, leaving Maye wide open with a chance to send the game to overtime. It was a chance well taken by Maye, as he took the pass from White and hit the shot to force an overtime, where UNC eventually held on for an 88-85 win. In doing so, Maye made head coach Roy Williams look wise for dialing up a late-game look for a guy he thought “had sucked the whole game.”
“In my opinion he hadn’t played very well, but he made a big-time shot there,” Williams said.
With no defender to deal with, Maye stepped into the shot, feeling confident but knowing that doesn’t always mean it’s going in.
“It felt good, but I’ve had a lot of those this year,” he said. “A lot of barely short, barely long. But it was good to see it go through the net.”
On Saturday, White stole the show for UNC by tying his career high with 33 points, his pull-up jumper serving as UNC’s best offensive play for large stretches of the second half as it battled back from a seven-point deficit. But it was Maye and senior guard Kenny Williams who stepped up down the stretch for the Tar Heels, who improved to 9-1 in the ACC for the first time in the Roy Williams era.
Neither player was having a great game. Maye thought he could have played better defensively, and he didn’t grab a single rebound in the second half. And even though he led UNC with 12 points at halftime, Maye hadn’t scored in over 17 minutes by the time he took his game-tying shot.
Oddly enough, Maye talked to Roy Williams on Friday about how UNC hadn’t had a game come down to the very end yet this season. A day later, the opportunity presented itself and the senior forward, despite the way the rest of the game had gone, delivered.
“Naturally, we had (a close game) today, and it showed a lot about our team,” Maye said. “It showed a lot about who’s going to be ready to take the big shot.”
Maye was and so, too, was Kenny Williams, who figured into a couple of big shots in different ways.
It was Kenny Williams who noticed late in the game that when UNC would set a ball screen for White, two defenders would follow him, leaving Maye open. During the timeout prior to Maye’s make, Kenny Williams brought this up in the huddle, and Roy Williams based his play call on the senior guard’s observation.
“That’s Kenny for you, man,” White said. “Just a great leader.”
Out of the timeout, UNC executed the play the way it was supposed to, and Miami, like Kenny Williams thought, left Maye open. Kenny Williams had to smile at the thought of an opponent leaving Maye open in a late-game situation.
“They miscommunicated,” he said with a chuckle, “and left one of the best shooters in the country open and he knocked it down. I wasn’t surprised at all.”
Once overtime came around, it was Kenny Williams’ turn to make a key shot when UNC needed one. Despite having only two points, the opportunity presented itself for UNC to run one of his favorite sets and he was eager to shoot. After coming off a ball screen, Kenny Williams, without giving it a second thought, fired away on a 3-pointer from the top of the key, a nothing-but-net make that gave UNC its first lead of overtime.
“I don’t think I’ll ever hesitate on (that set),” he said. “We tried to run it a couple of times and they covered it pretty well. This time they didn’t really cover it well.”
Even when his shot wasn’t falling, Kenny Williams impacted the game in other ways. An open-court steal and ensuing layup trimmed the deficit down to one point late in the second half and his good defense continued in overtime with him blocking Miami’s Zach Johnson, who had the hot hand at the time. And on Miami’s final possession of the game, it was Kenny Williams who sealed the win by diving on the floor for a loose ball after the Hurricanes’ Lykes coughed it up.
“It wasn’t my best game by far,” Kenny Williams said. “But Coach still had me in the game, so I had to try to do something to impact it.”
Saturday’s win was nowhere near as straightforward as many thought it would be for UNC against a depleted Miami squad that traveled only nine players and played eight. But the Tar Heels are hoping the experience of having to chase a game and still managing to pull out a win will be helpful later on this season.
“Granted we need to play much better, but it shows some of our resiliency,” Maye said.
Against Miami, that resiliency was personified by Maye and Kenny Williams, who helped turn a would-be unexpected loss into a seventh straight win.