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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Sporting fate has an uncanny way of coming full circle, of balancing scales, of granting good fortune to those it had previously cuffed around.
And so, a year after being the victim in the national championship game, North Carolina had its own Villanova Moment on Sunday. Its own epic last-second play. Its own sudden hero. Its own dramatic victory after losing every bit of a seemingly secure lead.
The parallels were everywhere.
Malik Monk was Marcus Paige: Heroically making shots in the final seconds, including a heavily contested 3-pointer with 7.2 seconds left to tie the game when all hope had appeared lost for Kentucky.
Theo Pinson was Ryan Arcidiacono: The dribbler, the decision maker, the delivery man of the underhanded pass.
Luke Maye was Kris Jenkins: Mr. Big Shot, swishing his way into NCAA tournament lore.
And just to make this full-circle story that much more karmically complete, there was Jenkins himself sitting behind the North Carolina bench. Tar Heels guard Nate Britt is his brother, and the Villanova senior was here to cheer him on.
Watching Britt and his teammates cut the nets, I had to ask Jenkins: how eerily similar is this to the ending in Houston last year? Just flipped upside down for the Heels?
“It’s crazy,” Jenkins agreed. “Really crazy.”
Carolina’s helpless feeling of last year, watching the other guys make the final play, has been replaced by a sweet sequel.
“I’m glad we came out on the winning side this time,” Pinson said.
“I know how Kentucky feels,” UNC guard Joel Berry said. “Not to have that feeling is nice.”
Kentucky feels the way Kentucky felt 25 years ago. Which is to say, awful.
A quarter century after the first time it happened, another player from Tobacco Road wearing No. 32 shoved a last-second dagger in the heart of Big Blue Nation on the brink of the Final Four. Then, Laettner. Now, Luke.
Maye’s shot has to rank as the second-most painful in Kentucky history. And if the Heels go on to win it all in Arizona, it might be the second-biggest shot in North Carolina history, behind Michael Jordan’s to win the 1982 national title.
But Maye is a far less likely assassin than was Christian Laettner in 1992. Laettner was the best player in college basketball that season. Maye is a role-playing sub with one career start and a 3.1 points-per-game scoring average in two seasons at Carolina.
From relative obscurity, Maye has morphed into a sudden star here in Memphis. He scored a career-high 14 points and had his first career double-double Friday against Butler in the South Region semifinals, then dropped 17 and the Final Four clincher against the Wildcats on Sunday. In a surreal turn of events, he was the South Region Most Outstanding Player in a field full of future NBA players.
“It happened so fast,” said Mark Maye, Luke’s father and a former quarterback at North Carolina, summing up both his son’s sudden star turn and the thunderclap of an ending Sunday.
Mark Maye and his wife raised Luke a Tar Heel – he remembers attending games in Chapel Hill as young as 5 or 6. He grew up in Huntersville, N.C., dreaming of playing at Carolina – originally as a football player, and eventually in basketball.
The interest wasn’t fully reciprocal. Maye was a low-wattage recruit who chose UNC over Clemson and Davidson. He was originally invited to walk on, but a scholarship opened up for him his freshman year.
Playing time did not open up much last year. Maye averaged 5.4 minutes per game as a freshman, but he vowed to improve enough in the offseason to merit more minutes. Maye was a constant summer presence in the gym, getting up shots alongside UNC leading scorer Justin Jackson.
“I knew I had confidence in myself and wanted to prove people wrong,” said Maye.
Maye’s minutes rose to more than 14 per game, although his presence on the court occasionally led Carolina fans to grumble about Roy Williams playing too many people. But UNC isn’t going to Glendale without Maye being on the floor 20 minutes Sunday.
“He’s a great shooter,” Pinson said. “It’s perfect for him to make that shot. He’s put so much work in.”
Hero Ball has been so rampant this college basketball season that it was something of a surprise that Pinson passed Maye the ball. The favorite formula is for the guy who has the ball late to shoot the ball, no matter how bad the shot may be.
Pinson broke with unproductive precedent. And broke Kentucky’s back.
Monk’s tying shot from the top of the key – launched over both a lunging Maye and a leaping Jackson – capped a furious Kentucky rally from seven points down with 50 seconds to play. It was the Cats’ third 3-pointer in 40 seconds, one by Fox and two by Monk, and it sent the UK half of FedEx Forum into ecstasy.
That was the third major shift in a tense and fierce second half.
Kentucky had overcome first-half foul trouble and a five-point halftime deficit to take a 64-59 lead with five minutes left, powered by its own improbable hero, Isaac Humphries. After scoring a total of 10 points in UK’s previous 12 games, the sophomore from Australia erupted for a career-high 12 points, hitting big jumper after big jumper.
Williams called a rare timeout and made a crucial decision – Carolina would go to a 2-3 zone. That stalled the Wildcats’ offense and launched a 12-0 Tar Heels run. Pinson, Jackson and Berry made difficult shots, and UNC made six straight free throws. With less than a minute left, the game seemed to be in hand.
But Kentucky went into desperation mode and its magnificent freshmen guards dropped their trio of 3-pointers. When Monk’s went down, the Heels’ lead was gone as abruptly and shockingly as Villanova’s last year.
But like ‘Nova, North Carolina never flinched and never hesitated. Kennedy Meeks quickly inbounded to Pinson, and the thrilling ending was set in motion.
“I looked at coach for a quick second and he looked at me,” Pinson said. “So I was like, ‘Let’s go do this thing.’ “
The fluid, 6-foot-6 junior has been an offensive catalyst for the Heels all season, so he was comfortable with the ball in his hands.
“I’m not scared of the moment,” Pinson said, “not scared to make those plays.”
Pinson took two dribbles to reach halfcourt, then in four more dribbles veered from the right side to the middle and into the paint as De’Aaron Fox moved with him. As he moved, Pinson was thinking driving layup and Maye was thinking crash the glass.
But at the last second Maye fanned out to the perimeter and Pinson saw the man guarding Maye, Derek Willis, come toward him to help Fox.
“When he committed, I pitched it,” Pinson said.
Maye caught it on the left wing, inside the arc, and took an instant to step back and set his feet about 19 feet out. He had a clear look at the hoop, and time to launch it. Isaiah Briscoe lunged to contest, but it was too late.
“He was by himself,” Pinson said. “I knew he’d make it.”
The only deviations from the Villanova script of a year ago were these: Maye’s shot came with three-tenths of a second left, not at the final horn; and it was about six feet closer to the basket.
Otherwise, it was all there. A baby blueprint of an epic finish, this time in favor of North Carolina.
More NCAA tournament coverage on Yahoo Sports:
• CBS affiliate cuts away from UNC-Kentucky finish, viewers miss winning shot
• Final Four coach’s future wife turn him down for a date seven times
• South Carolina’s magical run continues, Gamecocks clinch first-ever Final Four
• Podiatrist who once made 2,750 straight free throws dies at 94