COLUMBUS, OHIO — At 8:45 a.m. the morning of North Carolina’s 81-59 win over No. 9 seed Washington, Luke Maye was on the court, getting shots up. There were no other players there. Just him and a manager.
It’s evidence of what everyone in the North Carolina locker room will tell you: Nobody works harder than Maye.
“The kid works hard,” Cameron Johnson said. “He’s in the gym all the time getting up extra shots. And he plays harder than just about anybody. He works harder than just about anybody. And that’s a testament to his character.”
Maye was there partly for one reason: He hasn’t been shooting well. Friday against Iona, the senior finished 6-16 from the field, and 0-3 from the 3-point line. But, there was also a larger motivation.
“We talked about it all summer,” Maye said. “To lose that way, and have Joel and Theo go out like that, it was really hard.”
UNC’s loss to Texas A&M in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament still lights a fire under Maye. The No. 2 seed Tar Heels were handled by the No. 7 seed Aggies. The 86-65 loss was the last game seniors Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson played in a North Carolina uniform.
“Having lost, it gave me a different perspective,” he said. “Coming into this year, I had a little bit more hunger and a little bit more fight to get back.”
That hunger is why Maye was the only player at an early morning shoot-around in Columbus. He knew he shot poorly against Iona, and wanted to make sure his shot was finely tuned. He couldn’t leave anything to chance.
After all, this year matters even more. As much as it hurt to see teammates Berry and Pinson go out on a loss, this time it’s the last ride for Maye and his housemates: Johnson and Kenny Williams. And Maye knew that how he shot against Washington — a team that plays zone defense — could make all the difference.
“I just felt like I didn’t want to have any regrets,” he said. “I wanted to be my best self (for) my team.”
As a senior, Maye’s role is different than what it was in Final Four runs in 2016 and 2017. Maye was a reserve then. But now, Maye walks on the court every game knowing how he plays dictates the outcome of the game. Alongside Johnson and Williams, how Maye plays matters.
“We have a lot of say in what happens, and we play big minutes,” he said.
So against Washington, Maye took every precaution. He woke up early to fine-tune his shot. And it paid off.
Maye thrived in the middle of Washington’s zone. He posted 20 points — a career high in the NCAA Tournament. He routinely found his spots in the middle of the lane, the soft spot of the zone, and exploited it. He was also efficient on the boards. UNC controlled the glass all game (the Tar Heels out rebounded Washington 48-24). Maye finished with 14 rebounds to snag his 15th double-double of the season.
“Me and Luke, we always try to crash hard,” said first-year Nassir Little, who finished with 20 points and seven rebounds. “That’s what we emphasize, especially me with my athleticism and him with his strength. I think we’re really a force on the boards.”
At 6-foot-8, Maye’s rebounding is also a testament to his hard work. With 742 boards in the last two seasons, Maye is the only North Carolina player ever to have two seasons in the top 12 of UNC’s all-time best rebounding seasons.
Now in his third Sweet 16, Maye is happy with what North Carolina has accomplished. He notes that two Final Fours and three Sweet 16's is a good accomplishment for an unheralded recruiting class.
But with last season’s early exit still driving him, Maye isn’t done yet.