College Sports

Luke Maye’s UNC journey winds home, questions answered: ‘I wouldn’t change anything’

UNC seniors honored before game against Duke

North Carolina seniors Cameron Johnson, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams were honored before the Tar Heels' victory over the Duke Blue Devils at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, March 9, 2019.
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North Carolina seniors Cameron Johnson, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams were honored before the Tar Heels' victory over the Duke Blue Devils at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, March 9, 2019.

Roy Williams is a sucker for a good story, but one in particular he’s oft-repeated the past few weeks.

Three years ago, Luke Maye — somewhat pudgier and without his signature facial hair, or chinstrap — walked into Williams’ office in the Dean Smith Center. Williams still reminisces on that meeting, everything from the chairs they sat in to Maye’s message for him:

Coach, I’m gonna show you. Nobody’s gonna outwork me.

Now, why that memory? For everything Maye, who grew up in Huntersville, has accomplished in a Carolina blue uniform, why does that story stand out so strongly for his Hall of Fame coach?

“Because number one, he did it,” Williams said after UNC’s 79-70 win over Duke on Saturday. “Talk is cheap. I’ve had a lot of guys say, ‘Man, I’m gonna show you how hard I work.’ Jiminy Christmas, I work harder in one day than I’ve seen guys work in a week.

“But Luke Maye ...”

The coach’s voice trails off. Which is fine, because Maye’s work ethic no longer requires explanation. It’s just Luke Maye, grinder. Luke Maye, gym rat. Luke Maye, former walk-on turned All-American, becoming a UNC basketball folk hero in the process.

“He loves to tell that story,” Maye told the Observer. “Coach is old school. He really admires sweat, he really admires hard work. To see somebody really achieve that and do great things, it really kind of proves his point.”

Maye returns to Charlotte this week for the ACC Tournament, with a chance to show his hometown just how far he’s come. And if all Maye is remembered for after he leaves Chapel Hill is that — a never-ending effort — it would be a very good legacy. A daggum good one, Williams might say.

But after all Maye has accomplished the past four years, and the transformation he’s made, it also only scratches the surface of his impact.

‘People questioned me coming here’

Ask most anyone in the UNC basketball program about Maye’s career arc, and they’ll be quick to remind you how unlikely it all is.

Maye, the son of former UNC quarterback Mark Maye, didn’t arrive in Chapel Hill as a McDonald’s All-American or a five-star recruit. He was a good-not-great high school player at Hough High in Huntersville, and he passed on offers from Davidson and Clemson to join the Tar Heels as a preferred walk-on. He was, largely, an afterthought.

And yeah, count the Maye family among the skeptics about how far Luke’s UNC career would go.

“Basketball-wise, was I expecting it?” Mark Maye says. “I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t sure. You watch your kid go from one level to the next, from high school to one of the best programs in the country. Is he going to be able to play there? You have a little bit of that thought early on.”

Echoed Luke, in his Senior Night speech: “Honestly, sometimes I was like, ‘Me, coach?’”

But weeks after arriving on campus, Luke’s phone calls home weren’t filled with pessimism or doubt. He only averaged 5.4 minutes per game as a freshman, but he was succeeding in practice, at times even dominating future NBA players Brice Johnson and Isaiah Hicks. His freshman year culminated in Carolina’s gut-wrenching national championship loss to Villanova.

Soon afterward, as Williams’ tale goes, Maye visited his coach’s office.

‘In Carolina lore forever’

What followed was eight months of intense conditioning, and a quickly expanding role on the team.

The exclamation point on Maye’s sophomore emergence came in what was then UNC’s biggest game of the 2017 season. Around Chapel Hill, that moment is now more commonly known as “The Shot.”

It’s one of Maye’s dad’s proudest moments. Williams’ too, who describes it as a “a giant leap, no question.”

To rewind: During North Carolina’s national championship run, the team faced Kentucky with a spot in the Final Four on the line. It was advertised as the game of the tournament: UNC’s veterans seeking redemption for the previous year’s loss, versus Kentucky’s army of NBA-bound freshman.

The Wildcats erased a seven-point deficit in the final minute, capped by a game-tying 3 with 7.2 seconds left by current Charlotte Hornet Malik Monk — right over Maye. But North Carolina, as is Williams’ custom, did not call a timeout.

Instead, as the seconds ticked away, Theo Pinson raced down the court, sucking up every defender as he neared the basket. Maye was wide open from 19 feet, and Pinson got him the ball with a backward scoop pass. Maye squared up, and then released the same shot he’d gashed teammates with in practice for two years.

It dropped through the net with 0.3 seconds left, sending a shockwave through the FedEx Forum court in Memphis and Tar Heel basketball history.

“I’m just glad Theo passed it to me,” Maye says now with a laugh. “I shoot that shot every day ... It’s something I worked on, and hard work pays off.”

UNC would carry that momentum to the program’s seventh title, all because some walk-on nobody had ever heard of made a miracle of a shot.

“Looking back, I’ll be like, ‘Man, that’s something I did that helped us win a national championship,’” Maye said, “and that’s going to be in Carolina lore forever, and that can’t be taken away.

“I think that’s pretty special.”

‘Not a good time in Charlotte’

It’ll be personal for Luke Maye when he returns to play in Charlotte this week. And not for all the best reasons.

Long story short, Maye took that momentum after the Kentucky win and parlayed it into an even-more impressive junior season. He averaged a double-double on the year, 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, and was named to the All-ACC First Team, the All-ACC Tournament First Team, and a Third-Team All-American.

North Carolina, in the process, earned a cushy first NCAA Tournament site in Charlotte.

Instead, facing Texas A&M — one of the nation’s tallest and most physical teams — in the round of 32, UNC was completely outmatched. The Aggies raced to a 14-point halftime lead, and only continued battering the perimeter-oriented Tar Heels. Final score: Texas A&M 86, UNC 65.

Even a year later, the Tar Heels haven’t forgotten how badly things went down in Maye’s backyard.

“We talk about (that loss) a good amount,” Maye said. “I mean, the way we lost like that is something coach really puts in our minds ... It’s just not a good feeling.”

Added Kenny Williams, Maye’s roommate all four years of college: “We don’t want that taste in our mouth.”

Maye even said the loss is Charlotte was one reason he passed on the NBA last summer in favor of returning for his senior year. Now with UNC as the No. 2 seed in this week’s ACC Tournament, it’s a homecoming for Maye, yes, but also a chance to right last year’s wrong.

“Last year was not a good time in Charlotte, but it happens,” Maye said. “The last time I’ll play in Charlotte in a college uniform is something I’m going to try to take in and live it up. But at the end of the day, we have to go in there with the mindset that it’s a business trip.”

‘I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done here’

After beating Duke at home on Saturday night, the Tar Heels clinched a share of the ACC regular-season championship. As for Maye’s Senior Night performance, he missed 10 shots and scored just seven points, but contributed a game-high 16 rebounds and seven assists. And as time expired, the ball found its way to his hands, only for him to launch it into the air as the buzzer sounded.

The game showed Maye’s progression as a player, the soft touch and shooting and, of course, hard work that endeared him to a Hall of Fame coach when no one else thought him worthwhile.

“I had one coach say, ‘Coach, you like Luke a lot more than everybody else does. I said, ‘That’s right, and I’m the frickin’ head coach,’” Williams said. “The thing I’ll always remember for the rest of my life ... is how far the kid came, how hard he worked. That desire and determination, the belief in himself.”

Maye’s Senior Night speech reflected as much. He thanked everyone — Williams, Johnson, all his current and former teammates. The strength coaches who helped him shed weight, and who enabled him to win UNC’s annual preseason mile run twice in four years. The fans, who have gone from questioning him to adoring him.

And lastly, his parents. When he started talking about his dad, and how Mark still sometimes drives the four hours round-trip from Charlotte to shoot with him at night, Luke’s voice cracked.

“My dad is somebody who I look up to everyday,” Make squeaked out. “He always talks about wanting to go back and live his dreams, playing football ... and he tries to live through me.”

Postgame, reporters flocked to Maye’s area in the team video room. He had a small cut on his nose, a tiny crescent of blood. There, he summed up his final home game, but also this unlikely legacy he’s built for himself:

“I can honestly say I really had nothing left there at the end,” Maye said. “I gave everything I had, tried to battle as best I could. I missed some shots, but at the end of the day, I did other things that helped us win.

“I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done here.”

Jonathan Alexander contributed reporting.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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