The title of the group chat that includes every North Carolina player is “redemption,” a not-so-subtle reference to the theme of this year’s season in Chapel Hill.
Now the Tar Heels are one victory closer to achieving what they crave.
Nearly one year after North Carolina was the victims of Kris Jenkins’ iconic buzzer-beater in the national title game, the Tar Heels clinched a return to the Final Four with a last-second shot of their own. Former walk-on Luke Maye sank a tie-breaking 18-footer with less than a second left in regulation to give North Carolina a 75-73 victory over Kentucky.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 26, 2017
North Carolina needed Maye’s heroics after squandering a seven-point lead in the final minute of the game. Kentucky’s Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox combined for a trio of last-minute 3-pointers, the final one from Monk through a double team to tie the game at 73 with nine seconds to go.
As is his custom, North Carolina coach Roy Williams did not call timeout, preferring instead to let his team attack a defense that wasn’t set. Theo Pinson sped up court, forced Kentucky’s defense to collapse on him and kicked to Maye spotted up just inside the arc on the left wing.
At the Final Four next weekend in Phoenix, North Carolina will be the only familiar face. Whereas the tradition-rich Tar Heels have reached the Final Four 18 times in program history, their opponent Oregon hasn’t been in 78 years and fellow semifinalists Gonzaga and South Carolina are making their first appearances.
That it was Maye who sank the shot to get North Carolina there is pretty remarkable. The 6-foot-8 sophomore averaged a modest 14.2 minutes per game this season for a star-studded team, but he has excelled in the NCAA tournament, scoring 16 against Butler in the regional semifinals and 17 against Kentucky on Sunday.
Credit Kentucky for staying within striking distance of North Carolina on a day when its two best players were not at their best. Fox and Monk may have hit huge shots in the final minute, but both were quiet for long stretches of both halves.
Fox logged only eight minutes in a foul-plagued first half and took awhile to regain his rhythm after halftime before finishing with 13 points on 5-for-14 shooting. Monk also endured first-half foul trouble and struggled to generate clean looks against the long, athletic Justin Jackson.
Helping Kentucky stay competitive was interior standouts Bam Adebayo and Isaac Humphries, who combined for 25 points. Adebayo was a monster in the paint in the second half and Humphries hit several huge jump shots including one that put Kentucky up five late in the second half.
North Carolina responded with a 12-0 surge capped by two free throws from Pinson that put the Tar Heels up seven with 54 seconds to go.
At the time, it appeared like North Carolina could start looking ahead to Phoenix. Instead the Tar Heels made it a little extra dramatic.
More college basketball coverage on Yahoo Sports:
• Recently fired Tom Crean attends Indiana women’s basketball game
• Darius Rucker won’t miss South Carolina basketball, even when there’s a concert
• Frank Mason’s Kansas career ends without a Final Four appearance
• Oregon stuns Kansas to reach first Final Four in 78 years
• Gonzaga throttles Xavier to send Mark Few to his first Final Four
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