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North Carolina's Luke Maye went from benchwarmer to Tar Heels legend with one shot

North Carolina's Luke Maye went from benchwarmer to Tar Heels legend with one shot
North Carolina forward Luke Maye was an unexpected hero after making the shot that sent the Tar Heels to the Final Four. (Mark Humphrey / AP)

After he had danced with his teammates in a corner of FedExForum on Sunday evening, a strand of net tied around the back strap of his Final Four cap, Luke Maye scurried up several rows of seats.

That's where he hugged his mother while accepting congratulations from his father, two brothers and two friends from high school. There were times when it might have seemed as if they were the only ones who believed in the burly forward who came to North Carolina without a basketball scholarship.

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"They've been with me throughout thick and thin," Maye said.

Maye returned to Chapel Hill, N.C., to find that his circle of friends had grown considerably. A video widely circulated Monday showed fellow students standing and showering him with applause for their 8 a.m. class, a hero's welcome home.

Amazing what two breakthrough performances and one game-winning shot can do.

Maye went from warming benches to hearts Sunday after making the jumper with three-tenths of a second left that beat Kentucky and thrust the Tar Heels into a second consecutive Final Four, where they will face Oregon on Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

It was a shot that seemed to shock everyone except his teammates.

"Y'all are surprised," forward Justin Jackson told reporters afterward in the locker room, "but we're not surprised at all because we see it all the time in practice."

Said guard Nate Britt: "Luke knocks down a shot like that every day in practice. He kills our guys."

Maye was averaging 5.1 points and 3.8 rebounds in 13.8 minutes per game entering last weekend's regional semifinal against Butler. The sophomore had scored in double figures only four times during his first season on scholarship.

His gritty play led to a few "Luuuuuuuke!" chants from appreciative fans but did little to sway the legion of doubters who wondered why the son of Mark Maye, a former Tar Heels quarterback, would subject himself to mostly sitting on the bench for the school's storied basketball team.

"They were just saying I'm a little undersized, I'm not going to be able to play here," said Luke Maye, who at 6 feet 8 and 235 pounds often has to jostle with players considerably larger.

Maye felt he was ready to become more than a bit player, having followed North Carolina Coach Roy Williams' mantra in summer workouts and extra shooting sessions.

"Coach," Maye said, "always preaches sweat."

His teammates saw the potential in practice from a player who modeled his game after Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki. Maye possessed a shooter's touch as well as the ability to put the ball on the floor and beat defenders to the basket.

"The dude is a baller," guard Theo Pinson said. "He's a tough kid. He makes us better every day being on the other squad when we've got White against Blue."

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Some early success against Butler led to extra minutes and unprecedented production. Maye secured his first career double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds during the Tar Heels' runaway victory.

"Once you see the ball go in a few times," Britt said, "there's that confidence."

It had a carryover effect two days later. Maye made a three-pointer and pumped his fist after giving North Carolina an early five-point lead against Kentucky. His dunk late in the first half pushed the Tar Heels' advantage to eight.

Maye's solid all-around play prompted Williams to sub him in for starter Isaiah Hicks with 5 minutes 3 seconds left in the game and North Carolina trailing, 64-59. Maye never subbed back out. He made two free throws and grabbed a rebound to help fuel the Tar Heels' 12-0 push that preceded a wild Kentucky rally in the final minute.

After Wildcats guard Malik Monk buried a three-pointer to tie the score, 73-73, with nine seconds left, Maye watched Pinson take the inbounds pass. He never intended to be the hero.

"I just saw Theo sprinting down the court," Maye recalled later, "so I was like, I've got to try to trail him and see if I could get a rebound or something."

As Pinson drove into the lane, two defenders cut him off. Behind him, Maye backpedaled toward the perimeter. Pinson flipped his teammate the ball, certain that it was the best option.

"I could have forced something up," Pinson said, "but if I give him a good pick to hit him in his pocket and give him a wide-open shot, we could take that all day. He was hot."

He would stay that way, rising for the shot that lifted North Carolina into a second consecutive Final Four while exponentially increasing the size of his cheering section.

"I just wanted to prove those people wrong and show them that I can play," Maye said, "and I proved it tonight."

Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch

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