Scott Fowler

Why UNC reserve forward Luke Maye has become a Tar Heels fan favorite so quickly

North Carolina sophomore Luke Maye (32) drives to the basket between N.C. State's Dennis Smith Jr. (left) and BeeJay Anya (right) during the Tar Heels’ 97-73 victory over N.C. State last week in Raleigh. Maye scored a career-high 13 points in the game.
North Carolina sophomore Luke Maye (32) drives to the basket between N.C. State's Dennis Smith Jr. (left) and BeeJay Anya (right) during the Tar Heels’ 97-73 victory over N.C. State last week in Raleigh. Maye scored a career-high 13 points in the game. ehyman@newsobserver.com

It started as a low and familiar rumbling on Saturday night, a guttural sound rising up through 20,000 voices at the Smith Center.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was among those 20,000 people, attending his first North Carolina basketball game. Rivera knew he’d heard the sound before but in a far different place - 140 miles away at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.

“Luuuuuuke!” the crowd roared.

“Hey,” Rivera exclaimed to his wife and daughter. “They've got a Luke, too!”

North Carolina forward Luke Maye liked that story when I told it to him, which makes sense. Maye is a big Panthers fan, which of course means he is a big fan of Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

The Maye family has Panthers season tickets. Luke has actually chanted “Luuuuuuke!” himself in the Panthers' home stadium after Kuechly wiped out another running back.

“Kuechly gives his all on every play,” Maye said, “which is what I try to do as well.”

By doing so, Maye has ensured that the “Luuuuuke!” chant isn’t just for linebackers anymore. The former Hough High star has morphed from an afterthought as a freshman to an essential reserve as a 6-foot-8, 235-pound sophomore. Maye is averaging 13.8 minutes, 5.3 points and 3.9 rebounds for the Tar Heels, and his 3-point percentage (40.9) is better than everyone in Carolina blue except for junior point guard Joel Berry.

“We had a conversation last spring after his freshman year,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, “and Luke told me, ‘Coach, I'm going to show you that no one is going to outwork me.’ ”

Luke Maye's father is Mark Maye, a former Tar Heels quarterback in the 1980s and a three-sport all-state standout at Charlotte’s Independence High before that. Maye had an NFL-level arm before injuries short-circuited his football career. He and Aimee Maye have four strapping sons. Believe me when I say that when the family comes through a doorway, it looks like something out of a fairytale.

Oldest of 4 brothers

A quick story: My family was once eating at a K&W Cafeteria in Cornelius that we frequented. We have four kids, so we needed a lot of trays. But on this night, across the crowded room, I saw another family of six that was putting us to shame in terms of sheer number of dishes. Like us, this family really needed a separate table for its discard pile.

About 10 minutes into the meal, I realized it was the Mayes.

That particular K&W closed down not long after that meal. Coincidence? You be the judge.

Cole Maye, the second-oldest brother, graduated from Hough a semester early in December so he could go play baseball on scholarship at Florida. He is a 6-7 left-handed pitcher.

Beau Maye is a 6-8 freshman at Hough who played junior varsity basketball and weighs about as much as Luke. Youngest brother Drake isn’t as big as his older brothers yet but hopes to play football, basketball and baseball when he gets to high school.

Luke, the oldest brother, was a three-star recruit who was pursued hard by a number of schools, including Davidson, Charlotte and Clemson. But North Carolina was his dream. He originally committed to the Tar Heels knowing he might have to walk on for his first season. Williams was eventually able to award him a scholarship just before Maye's senior year at Hough ended. The coach called it at the time “one of the most pleasant recruiting experiences I have ever gone through.”

Maye Day

Maye played sparingly as a freshman and not at all in the national championship loss to Villanova last April. But after then-seniors Brice Johnson and Joel James departed, Maye found a spot in this season's rotation and has made significant contributions. He had 11 points against Kentucky in December, 15 rebounds against Florida State in January and a career-high 13 points against N.C. State - including a rare drive and dunk off a pump fake - last week. The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper published a story headlined “Maye Day” after Maye's performance against the Wolfpack.

“I've been getting some more confidence, playing some more and trying to play to my strengths,” Maye said. “I just try to continue to bring energy off the bench.”

Williams is prone to calling the occasional play for Maye. He is also prone to calling out Maye for his tendency to foul.

“He's going to get better,” Williams said of Maye. “His ability to shoot the ball is going to become more important to him. He's extremely intelligent and a great student. I kid him all the time that we need that intelligence to transfer over to the basketball court. I say, ‘Son, you need to think about taking charges instead of trying to block shots.’ ”

With four games left in the regular season, starting Wednesday night at home against Louisville (22-5, 10-4), Maye and the Tar Heels (23-5, 11-3) lead the ACC standings by a game over the Cardinals and Duke. He will have a far larger role during this March Madness than he did last year.

“I'm going to make some mistakes,” Maye said, “but I'm going to make them going full speed.”

He sounded almost like Kuechly when he said it.

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