MEMPHIS — North Carolina owns an extensive record of March excellence, so much that even a smashing romp into the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament can blend with history. The top-seeded Tar Heels’ 92-80 demolition of No. 4 Butler in a South Region semifinal Friday night provided almost zero drama, and yet a quirky delight within will make it difficult for Carolinians to misplace in memory. It will be remembered as the night Luke Maye, a soft-spoken former walk-on from Huntersville, N.C., morphed briefly into a supernova.
North Carolina would have cruised without Maye’s unexpected 16 points and 12 rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench, so mammoth in its physicality and vast in its talent compared with Butler. The Tar Heels advanced to their second consecutive regional final, two victories shy of returning to the national title game, in which Villanova left them anguished with a buzzer-beating game-winner last year. (“We think about it every day,” point guard Joel Berry II said.) They still must finish their crawl through the minefield South Region, a date Sunday with the winner of UCLA vs. Kentucky awaiting.
Justin Jackson and Berry, the standard Tar Heel stars, scored 24 and 26 points, respectively. Carolina made nine of its first 11 shots, built a 20-point lead late in the first half and led by double digits for the entirety of the second half. The Heels scored more points than any Butler opponent since 2014, a testament to the explosiveness that makes them a title threat again.
Among those likely to steal spotlight in the royalty-laden South Region, Maye ranked somewhere near the bottom. He plays on scholarship now, only after paying tuition as a freshman; Coach Roy Williams called him this summer and told him to ask his parents for $1,000, because they’d be paying $25,000 less to UNC. He had started one game in his career and never played more than 25 minutes.
“He really does provide a lot of headaches for the starting five in practice almost every day,” Williams said. “He can shoot the ball. He can rebound the ball.”
Friday night, senior Isaiah Hicks got into foul trouble, and Williams inserted Maye. He plays different than other Carolina big men, a forward capable of spotting up beyond the arc. As Butler’s pick-and-roll defense focused on ballhandlers, Maye found himself open.
“He just adds different aspects for our team,” Jackson said. “For him to come out and play like this, it was huge for us. We just need him to keep it going.”
He surpassed his previous scoring career high of 13 points with 14 in the first half, draining three three-pointers. His rebounding muscle didn’t come as a surprise — Maye grabbed 15 against Florida State this season.
The performance was the product of Williams’s careful plan. Even when he wasn’t on scholarship last season, Williams played Maye in 33 games, giving him minutes to build confidence for Maye and an extra layer of depth for his team. Williams’s overstuffed rotation made it possible for a pop-up, role-playing star to emerge on the biggest night, so far, of their season.
“I just want to go out and there and play the best I can and limit the mistakes I make,” Maye said. “I got a couple shots to fall in. I felt pretty confident, and they kept going.”
The Heels squandered a 17-point lead in the second round against Arkansas, barely surviving after they faced a five-point deficit in the final four minutes. Against Butler, the Heels ensured they would not repeat that mistake, but they found another glitch to correct before facing off against a fellow blue blood: the Heels made only 64 percent. But they will continue their march, and on an uncompetitive night, they may have added another weapon to a full arsenal.