They told stories about Luke Maye after he made the shot against Kentucky a little less than eight months ago – ones about how he was prepared to walk on at North Carolina, and about his unlikely path from a relatively unheralded high school prospect to the place he earned in UNC basketball lore.
In time some of those stories, and the thought that anyone should be surprised by Maye's success, might seem silly in retrospect. He led the Tar Heels on Friday night to an 86-69 season-opening victory against Northern Iowa, and if there was any takeaway from an early-November game against an over-matched opponent it was this: Maye is likely be a imposing problem for opponents this season.
He led UNC with 26 points, nine more than he'd ever scored in a college game. He finished with 10 rebounds. He excelled at times on the perimeter, where he made two of his three 3-point attempts and, on the interior, he used his speed – and a deft touch around the basket – to maneuver around Northern Iowa (0-1) defenders who proved helpless, and hapless.
The Tar Heels have played 40 games in each of the past two seasons, both of which have ended on the final Monday night. And so there is much basketball ahead. For a season-opener, though, UNC did its best to answer some of the questions that have lingered throughout the preseason.
Yes, for instance, Maye seems prepared to take another step in his emergence, and to be known for something more than one of the great shots in school history. And, yes, the Tar Heels just might be more formidable on the inside than seemed possible.
UNC (1-0), after all, lost Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, its two most productive and reliable interior players from a season ago. The Tar Heels replaced them with three freshmen, one of whom, Garrison Brooks, started on Friday night.
The 6-foot-9 Brooks, a late addition to UNC's incoming recruiting class, was the first UNC player to join Maye in double figures. Brooks finished with 14 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes. Jalek Felton, another member of UNC's freshmen class, also started. It was the first time since 2007 that two UNC freshmen started their first college games.
Brooks started by necessity. UNC has few other options on the interior, after all. Felton, meanwhile, started in place of Joel Berry, the senior point guard who watched from the bench while he recovers from a broken bone in his right hand. Berry dressed out, and went through warm-ups, but he is expected to miss at least another game.
The Tar Heels were also without Cameron Johnson, the junior forward who transferred from Pitt. Johnson sat out with a sprained neck that he suffered in a practice earlier in the week. When healthy, Berry and Johnson will both start. The Tar Heels didn't miss them on Friday, though, and Maye was one of the main reasons why.
After he took his seat on the bench with about 6 ½ minutes remaining, the Tar Heels leading by 30, the home crowd serenaded him with its familiar chorus of “Luuuuuuuuuuke.” For Maye, it had been a night to remember, and one that could portend greater things to come.