Jenkins watched Theo Pinson sprint down the court, the score suddenly tied, another dose of North Carolina anguish simmering while Kentucky’s bench erupted. He saw the short pass to Luke Maye, a former walk-on from Huntersville, N.C., the son of a North Carolina quarterback, the kid who attended his first Tar Heels game at 5 years old. He saw Maye hoist a shot and experience a feeling few others can understand.
“It’s something he’ll never forget,” Jenkins said. “He and his brothers will have that for the rest of their lives.”
Maye’s jumper from just inside the three-point arc, with 0.3 seconds on the clock, prevented another season from ending in heartache and propelled North Carolina into the Final Four and a date with Oregon. The shot provided the only separation between the Tar Heels and Wildcats. It counteracted the magic Malik Monk conjured in the final minutes. It punctuated a 75-73 epic, painful for Kentucky and poetic for North Carolina.
North Carolina lost the national title last year when Jenkins, in response to Marcus Paige’s flying, legs-splayed three-pointer, drained a three at the horn. Tortured for a calendar year by the insanity a final few seconds can produce, North Carolina found ecstasy in them Sunday afternoon. Another batty sequence produced wrenching agony and thrilling joy, this time in the preferred order.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Maye said. “I got to soak it in as much as I can, then get ready for next week.”
Maye forewent scholarship offers out of high school and paid tuition for a year before Coach Roy Williams put him on scholarship this past summer. He came to Memphis largely unknown outside Tobacco Road. He headed home as the South Region Most Outstanding Player, having scored 33 points, notched consecutive career highs and gained the knowledge he will need not purchase a beer in Chapel Hill, N.C., for the remainder of his days.
“I had confidence in myself,” Maye said. “I wanted to prove people wrong, that I could play at this level, really show people that I’m a great player and I can compete with the best.”
His moment came at the end of a defensive, foul-plagued tussle. The Wildcats hung close despite foul trouble ensnaring De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo and Monk, their trio of freshmen stars. Kentucky even pulled ahead by five with less than five minutes remaining. Williams called a timeout, a rare concession for him, and changed from man-to-man to zone defense. The switch sparked a 12-0 run, and with less than a minute remaining, North Carolina had opened a seven-point lead.
And then, madness. Fox drained a three-pointer from the left corner, breathing life back into the Wildcats. Kentucky’s defense forced inbounder Kennedy Meeks to hold the ball for five seconds. Monk came off a screen and drained a three, and suddenly a North Carolina party had become a one-point nail-biter.
Justin Jackson broke loose for a layup, a stabilizer, and the Tar Heels stopped Kentucky. Jackson had a chance to ice it, but he bricked the front end of a one-and-one.
Kentucky stormed down the court. Monk curled from the corner to the top of the key and took a dribble handoff from Isaiah Briscoe. He rose, faded away and launched a shot, with Jackson and Maye both raising hands in his face. The ball splashed through the net with 7.5 seconds on the clock, inviting Carolina to relive scars.
“I don’t think we could have guarded him any better,” Britt said. “I just couldn’t believe he made the shot.”
Williams, stingy with timeouts in the mold of his mentor, Dean Smith, has a standing rule for end-game scenarios: “Over seven seconds, we play.” Meeks took the ball out of the net and passed it to Pinson.
Pinson bolted up the floor. “I’m about to make a play and win this game for us,” Pinson thought. As he crossed half court, he checked the clock.
Pinson pushed. Maye trailed behind, the precise maneuver Jenkins employed with Ryan Arcidiacono last April.
Pinson saw Fox, saddled with four fouls, crouched before him. “I’m going to attack him,” Pinson thought, “because he can’t foul me.” As Pinson charged into the lane, he noticed Derek Willis shuffle into the lane, sagging off Maye. With his left hand, Pinson pitched it back to Maye.
The clocked showed 2.7 seconds.
On the opposite wing, Jackson thought back to summer. He rooms with Maye, and one day Maye asked him whether he could join him for a workout. From that day after, it became an unspoken pact — when one went to the gym, the other followed. They hoisted shots and lifted weights and sweated through Chapel Hill heat. On difficult days or nights shots wouldn’t fall, Jackson would tell Maye, “There’s no success without struggle.”
Maye caught Pinson’s pass and took one step back. He released the ball, over the desperate, late reach of Briscoe.
“It looked great,” Maye said. “It looked great going up.”
“I knew it was good,” North Carolina’s Joel Berry II said. “I was just waiting for it go in.”
“That was a great feeling,” Jackson said. “I knew it was going to go in.”
“Lord,” Pinson thought, “please go in.”
The ball rattled off the back rim and through the net, and now the clock showed only 0.3 seconds. Maye screamed and skipped. Berry sprinted over and hugged him. Meeks nearly decapitated him with a joyous clothesline. The Wildcats couldn’t execute a miracle, and North Carolina players swarmed the court amid confetti.
“It’s just great to be on the opposite side,” Berry said. “I know how Kentucky feels.”
Kentucky only could wallow. Isaac Humphries, a sophomore from Australia, saved the Wildcats with a series of clutch midrange jumpers and a career-high 12 points. Monk, Fox and Adebayo likely will depart for the NBA. They will take bittersweet memories of Monk’s late threes and tears dropping in the locker room.
“I love my team. I love my brothers,” Fox said. “This is a family. People don’t think we come together because of how well we did in high school, but we came together and grew into a family.”
In the other locker room, Williams rushed in, and players drenched him with water. “It’s the best dad-gum bath I’ve ever had with my clothes on,” Williams said.
Jackson, having hounded Monk all evening, had never felt more tired after a game. Berry played 33 minutes on a twisted ankle that, in the first half, a trainer inspected in the locker room as he cried. “Right now, it’s hurting pretty bad,” Berry said, twine from the net tied around his championship cap. “It’s all worth it with this hat on.”
Out on the floor, Jenkins lingered in the stands. He wore a North Carolina region championship hat. He predicted Maye would gain swagger, a specific brand few others could relate to. Every day, Jenkins said, he practices the shot that so anguished North Carolina. Maye can do that, for the rest of his days.
“He’ll never forget it,” Jenkins said. “He’ll never be able to.”