“With five, looks up, driving in. Maye, for the win…North Carolina! With 0.3 seconds to go!”
Luke Maye came a long way to get to this moment, and he’s been a long way since.
As one of the most prestigious programs in NCAA history, North Carolina has had its fair share of McDonald’s All-Americans and future first-round draft picks, including the likes of James Worthy, Vince Carter, and Michael Jordan.
This is not the career path Maye envisioned when he committed to UNC, and it’s not the one he’s embarked on. However, Maye would go on a journey more unique than any of the aforementioned players.
The Huntersville, NC native committed to UNC on November 11, 2014, as a preferred walk-on. He was promised by Roy Williams that he would get a scholarship eventually, just not as a freshman. At the time, the scholarship was being saved for eventual Duke commit Brandon Ingram.
Unsurprisingly, Maye came to Carolina with little fanfare. He was ranked as a 3-star player by 247 Sports. Maye didn’t see much playing time his freshman season as he had to compete with the likes of Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Joel James for minutes.
When he did see time on the court, he struggled, averaging just 1.2 PPG and 1.7 PPG. He was also prone to making head-scratching mistakes in key moments. These mistakes frustrated a lot of UNC fans, some even demanding his scholarship be taken away.
For the most part, Maye watched Carolina’s 2016 run to the National Championship game from the bench.
Going into his sophomore season, expectations were not particularly high for Maye. Most saw him as an inconsequential role player on a team that should contend for a National Championship.
For the first part of the season, those expectations held true. Maye did see an increase in minutes but still had a minimal role for the Tar Heels.
As the Tar Heels entered conference play, that changed. Maye’s minutes steadily increased to 14.1 per game, and he averaged a solid 5.1 PPG and 4.0 RPG off the bench. Maye would continue to improve and play a bigger role as postseason play began.
Maye’s true coming out party would be the Sweet 16 matchup against Butler. He scored a career-high 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds against the Bulldogs, playing a huge part in a relatively easy tournament victory for UNC.
Maye’s performance against Butler received a lot of high praise, but Kentucky was the game that made him the household name he is today.
Everyone remembers the shot at the end, forgetting that he scored 17 huge points. Only All-American Justin Jackson scored more for the Tar Heels. Maye also made plays that went beyond the box score. With less than a minute to go and Kentucky desperately trying to tie the game, Maye dove for a loose ball and ripped it away from future lottery pick Bam Adebayo, giving possession to Carolina.
On the ensuing inbound play, Maye threw a risky but successful outlet pass ahead to a streaking Jackson, who laid the ball in with ease, giving UNC some breathing room.
You know the rest. Kentucky freshman Malik Monk hit a ridiculous three-pointer to tie the game with seconds to go. Instead of calling a timeout, UNC ran the break, and Theo Pinson found Maye for the open jumper. Maye, of course, drained the shot, sending the Tar Heels to the Final Four and the stat-studded Wildcats home.
The shot turned Maye into an internet sensation, and UNC would go on to win the National Championship. The shot is, without question, one of the best and most important in the history of Carolina Basketball. It is right up there with Michael Jordan’s shot to beat Georgetown in the 1982 National Championship game.
The difference is, the shot in 1982 was made by Jordan: a McDonald’s All-American, top-3 pick in the NBA Draft, six-time NBA Champion, 5-time NBA MVP, future owner of one of the biggest shoe brands in the world and probably the greatest player ever in the history of the game. The shot in 2017 was made by Maye, the former walk-on, who at one time fans called to have his scholarship taken away and is currently projected to go undrafted.
In June of 2017, Maye traveled back to Huntersville to give a speech at his brother, Drake’s, school graduation. On the way, Maye was involved in a serious car accident. Fortunately, he walked away unharmed aside from a few scratches and bruises. After being involved in the wreck, Maye still gave the speech as he promised later that day.
Most players, especially unsung ones like Maye, would let a historic play like that define the rest of their career. Not Luke Maye. Following the departures of post players Meeks, Hicks, and Tony Bradley after the championship season, Maye would need to prepare himself for a starting role going into his junior season.
Maye put in the work to prepare himself, which included getting in better physical shape. At the annual “Carolina Mile” in late September, a team conditioning test that marks offseason training and the beginning of practice, Maye ran a team-best 4:59 mile.
The hard work paid off, as Maye started the 2017-18 season on an absolute tear. He scored 28 and 27 points in early season tests against Northern Iowa and Michigan, respectively.
Maye would use this early season momentum to put together one of the better statistical seasons from a UNC post player in recent history. He averaged 16.9 PPG and 10.1 RPG on the year, scoring in double figures 30 times while scoring 20 plus points 13 times. The individual highlight of the season for Maye was his 33 point, 17 rebound performance against N.C. State. This was the first of many big-time Luke Maye outings vs the Wolfpack.
Maye’s accomplishments went beyond the court, too. He won the Skip Prosser Award as the ACC’s top scholar-athlete, joining Marcus Paige and Tyler Zeller as the three UNC players to win the award during the sixteen-year Roy Williams Era in Chapel Hill.
As a senior, Maye has not scored as consistently high as he did last season, but he has provided a steady veteran presence on a relatively young team. However, this does not mean he has not had his fair share of big games. Maye dropped 30 points and 15 rebounds in a blowout win at Duke a few weeks ago, while scoring 27 points and 12 rebounds against N.C. State. On Tuesday against Boston College, Maye grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds and added 17 points.
With the postseason just around the corner, Maye is a huge reason that the Tar Heels are yet again in a position to earn a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and potentially make a very deep run.
Maye has had one of the most unique careers in the history of Carolina Basketball; his journey has included criticism from fans, game-winners, championships, car accidents and prestigious academic recognition. He did all of this as a former walk-on.
Maye has been doubted since the beginning, and he knows it. He commented on this in a recent interview with Inside Carolina: “People didn’t think I could play here, didn’t think that I could start here, didn’t think I could be the impact player I am, and I continue to prove people wrong each night.”
Luke Maye’s senior night is Saturday night against Duke. As you watch Maye take the Smith Center floor one last time, realize and appreciate that you have witnessed and are witnessing, the greatest underdog story in the history of Carolina Basketball.
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