Late in the first half of UNC’s 96-66 win over Boston College, junior forward Luke Maye found himself wide open behind the three-point line in between the left wing and top of the key.
The Huntersville native–sporting a new haircut–hesitated for just a second, took a dribble, then let out his third attempt of the night from beyond the arc.
Naturally, the shot swished through the net.
Then somewhat unnaturally, the normally reserved Maye—who was already up to 21 points and 10 rebounds by this point—couldn’t help but shake his head back and forth, before throwing his arms up in the air with three fingers held up on each hand.
Recognizing what they were watching, fans in the Dean Dome roared so loud the building started shaking.
It’s rare to see Maye celebrate after a big play, but after struggling in back-to-back losses at Florida State and Virginia it finally felt like he was back to the player who took home a pair of ACC Player of the Week honors early in the season–posting a career-high 32 points and 18 rebounds.
“I’ve got really good kids, they care about what people think,” head coach Roy Williams said Tuesday. “I tell them to shut up and play because I think they started to feel a little pressure.
“I told Luke you don’t have to be anybody else, just be Luke,” the coach continued. “What changed from five games ago? You go back maybe five or six games ago and he was being talked about as one of the breakout players in America—and then the last three or four games he’s played like [local writer] Barry Jacobs.
“He came back into Luke [on Tuesday],” Williams added. “I like Luke a lot more than I like Barry.”
Maye’s career night against Boston College also went a long way in validating Williams’ decision to start him at the center position in place of freshman Garrison Brooks.
The move to insert graduate transfer Cameron Johnson—a 6-foot-7 wing player—into the starting lineup was likely made, knowing Williams, with experience in mind.
What it also does, however, is force the Tar Heels into becoming a smaller, more perimeter-oriented team.
Typically guarded by the biggest player on the floor in this lineup, Maye took advantage and then some against Boston College.
The former walk-on had an answer for everything that was thrown at him–whether it was by drilling four of his five three-pointers, hustling for second-chance points or using turnaround fadeaways around the lane.
“I feel like every time we get out there more with Cameron—he is such a great player and knowledgeable guy—that we’re going to play off of each other,” Maye told reporters about the lineup change. “It’s a lot of fun when we’re out there hitting all of our shots, playing together and making a lot of plays.”
Although Williams said he may change the starting lineup depending on UNC’s opponents as the team moves into the future, it was made alarmingly clear that its best chances of making a deep run in March involve Maye producing like he did earlier this season (and on Tuesday).
The numbers seem to say the same thing, as Maye has averaged just over 11 points and eight rebounds in the Tar Heels’ four losses this season—all while shooting a putrid 28.3 percent from the floor.
Before Tuesday, the last time Maye scored 20 points–which he’s done eight times this season–came on Dec. 3 against Tulane.
“The last couple games I’ve kind of gotten down on myself, and I haven’t been the same person,” Maye said Tuesday. “I really came out tonight and wanted to—no matter if I made 12 or missed 12—play the same way.
“I kept telling myself to continue to work hard and to continue to get in the right spot and my teammates found me,” he continued. “The basket was pretty big tonight, and it was a lot of fun.”
In UNC’s two conference victories so far, Maye is averaging 24.5 points and 16.5 rebounds per game—or nearly twice the production he’s put up in the team’s losing efforts.
It doesn’t take a math major to realize the impact he has on the final outcome—especially as the Tar Heels’ only true frontcourt player with championship experience.
When Maye plays well, and has fun, the Tar Heels win. When the Tar Heels win, it’s safe to assume they, too, also have fun.
“We need that from him,” senior point guard Joel Berry said, about Maye’s confident inside-outside performance. “Hopefully, he can continue that. I have faith in him and I believe in him.
After a quick pause, Berry added, “If he can keep that up, it’ll help us out a lot.”
Cover photo via Todd Melet