KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Luke Maye, Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson won’t remember the end to this season fondly.
By April 8, 350 other teams and a host of seniors will have shared in that same misery — but that won’t make coming to grips with the final game of their careers any easier.
Instead of a championship feeling — like the Tar Heels had hoped for — the three veterans for the North Carolina men’s basketball team felt the heartache of a 17-point, 97-80 gut-punch loss to Auburn in the Sweet 16, which brought their college careers to a close.
“I didn't help them a heck of a lot today,” head coach Roy Williams said. “I didn't get them as prepared as Bruce (Pearl) got his team prepared. Bruce loves his team, but he can't love his team any more than Roy Williams loves his team. I've loved coaching these guys.”
The ending for UNC’s three veterans was a far cry from a fairy tale. On the trio’s watch, the defense played lackadaisically, allowing as many open second-half shots as Auburn could ask for. The play of the Tar Heels was a recipe for destruction, as the Tigers set an NCAA Tournament record for a UNC opponent with 17 made 3-pointers while UNC struggled to find an offensive rhythm.
After the game, Maye and Williams had to sit in front of the podium and answer for what had happened, holding back tears with the regret of what could have been. Meanwhile, Johnson, their third roommate, was deep in the locker room throwing up. He’d had a 100-degree fever the night before and wouldn’t be well enough to voice the final words of his college career.
“Cam wasn't the same person on the court,” Roy Williams said. “Those are excuses. We've got to congratulate Auburn and Bruce and the job that he and his coaching staff did.”
All told, UNC, led by its veterans, fell apart in the second half. After nursing a four-point lead just before halftime, the Tar Heels were never close to leading in the final 20 minutes.
“I felt like the second half we came out (and) didn't play our principles,” Maye said. “They hit some shots, and we kind of tried to get it back all on one play and didn't go in our favor.”
Maye, Williams and Johnson might not have wanted to relive that game, let alone look back on their careers quite yet after it became apparent midway through the second half it would be their final game in a light blue uniform. But that didn’t stop their coach and teammates from remembering all that they’d meant to the program on and off the court.
“When I think of Luke Maye and Kenny Williams and Cam — only had Cam for two years — but man, that's what every coach should love to have,” Roy Williams said.
On the court the last four seasons, UNC has won 121 games, advanced to two Final Fours, captured a No. 1 seed three times and won at least a share of the ACC regular-season crown three times, as well as a national championship in 2017. Maye, Williams — and later Johnson — were huge contributors during that run, accomplishing much more than anyone thought they were capable of coming in as fresh-faced recruits.
On Friday, the three players combined for one basket shy of half their team’s points, while adding a combined six assists and 17 rebounds. Johnson led the veterans in scoring with 15 points, while Maye had 13 and Williams added 10. But in the end, their play on the court just wasn’t quite enough to delay the inevitable.
However, in the minds of their teammates, contributions made off the court will always be more memorable than anything they could do on the court.
Brandon Robinson said the program will sorely miss his older teammates, who have meant a lot to him since he came to Chapel Hill. Early on in his UNC career, as he struggled without a car two states away from his hometown of Douglasville, Georgia, Robinson could lean on Maye to be there for him. It’s something he’ll never forget.
“Luke like all the time when I was hungry at night, and I didn't have a car, he would always ask me, 'Do you want me to get you something to eat? I can come pick you up,'” Robinson said. “Anytime I needed him for something, he was right there.”
The pair often ventured over to Old Chicago on Franklin Street, where they shared a pizza before the spot closed a few years ago. Even as that memory came to mind, Robinson said he knows all three players have his back.
“Those guys were all influential in my life," Robinson said.
After the heartbreak end to the season, Roy Williams reminded the dejected faces of his players to cling onto the "good times" of the season. Now, that’s all that Kenny Williams, Maye and Johnson have left.
As incoming first-years, the 2015 UNC recruiting class of Williams and Maye was not highly regarded. Williams and Maye ended up rooming together along with Justin Jackson. The longer they lived together, their bond slowly grew into a friendship. When Jackson left for the NBA and Johnson transferred in to replace him, the graduate fit into the group seamlessly — building an experience off the court none of them could have expected.
“To put into words wouldn't do it justice,” Kenny Williams said, “but if I had to, I would say it's nothing that I thought it was going to be. You come in with expectations and these past four years have blown that away.”
The season didn’t end the way the Tar Heels planned, something they’ll have to wrestle with. But even without an eventful punctuation to the year, this season will be remembered for Maye, Williams and Johnson, and how the program moves on from them.
“For the seniors, I just want to thank them for what they did for us, and the guys returning next year, we just need to use this to fuel us,” Robinson said, “because back-to-back years, we didn't go out like we wanted to."
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