BOZICH | Maye Day! Regional, national title there for Kentucky -- until they weren't
With five minutes to play, Kentucky had a clear path to the South Regional title and another national championship. Then North Carolina made it come apart for the Wildcats.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WDRB) – It looked like Kentucky’s regional to win.
Scratch that. Actually, it looked like Kentucky’s national championship to win, even on a day when the final scoreboard said North Carolina 75, Kentucky 73.
What else could anybody be thinking after the Wildcats rallied from an ugly nine-point hole and crackled five points ahead of North Carolina with about five minutes left in the South Regional championship game Sunday?
How much were round-trip tickets to Phoenix on less than a week’s notice?
Isaac Humphries couldn’t miss. It was his crisp 17-footer that pushed the Wildcats ahead 64-59, the final two points of an eight-point, second-half Humphries’ surge.
North Carolina could no longer stay in front of De’Aaron Fox. Benched by foul trouble in the first half, Fox was starting to do Fox things. After missing his first five shots, Bam Adebayo discovered that he could assert himself around the rim against UNC’s taller frontline.
It didn’t matter that Malik Monk didn’t look like the Malik Monk who hung 47 points on North Carolina when these teams played in December.
When UNC coach Roy Williams asked for a timeout with 5:03 to play, Kentucky fans filled FedEx Forum with more noise and energy than the building had experienced all afternoon.
Beat Carolina, the top seed in the South, and Kentucky would be likely be favored to topple Oregon and then either Gonzaga or South Carolina at the Final Four, which begins in Phoenix Saturday.
Cue the talk about another national championship.
Stop the music. The final five minutes were unkind to the Wildcats.
“This is probably the best game of the season,” Fox said. “I’m just sad it didn’t come in a winning effort.”
Humphries stopped making shots. So did Adebayo. Everybody did, during a painful four-minute meltdown. Carolina scored 12 straight points. Kentucky missed its next five shots – first Humphries, then Adebayo, then Fox, then Derek Willis, then Malik Monk, who actually went 24 minutes without a field goal.
After scoring 47 on the Tar Heels, Monk finished with 12. After scoring 39 on UCLA Friday, Fox had 13.
Williams shifted Carolina into a zone. The zone stopped Kentucky’s ability to attack the rim.
“We did not quite execute,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We kind of, we weren’t in the spots we were supposed to be in, and it kind of started from there … We needed to make one (shot) to stem the tide and try to win the game. We just missed all of them.”
John Calipari’s team lost its defensive edge, too. Just when it appeared that a Kentucky victory was inevitable, this became one of those games where the team taking the final shot was likely to win.
That team was North Carolina.
That player was Luke Maye, the Tar Heels’ eighth leading scorer, a guy who gives them 3.3 points per game.
Unguarded on the left wing (other than a belated chase from Isaiah Briscoe), Maye took a pass from teammate Theo Pinson, straightened, launched and made an 18-footer with 0.3 seconds to play to lift North Carolina to that 75-73 victory, the one that stopped the Wildcats three victories short of where they intended to finish.
“I just kind of stepped back, he gave me the ball and I shot it,” Maye said. “Thankfully it went in.”
It was Maye’s night. He finished with 17 points, one more than the career high Maye scored against Butler Friday.
It is a shot that will go one line under Christian Laettner’s shot in the East Regional final 25 years ago among the most stinging game-winning shots the Wildcats have endured in regional semifinals. Eerie fact: Like Laetnner, Maye wored No. 32.
This was a game the Wildcats were primed to win. This was a game when the Wildcats had the momentum. This was a bracket that had opened spectacularly if Kentucky could complete the heavy lifting of beating UCLA and North Carolina.
“We had to try to beat a great North Carolina team two times and that’s tough,” Fox said. “But it could have been done. They made big shots.”
“It’s amazing that we were in the game when they practically fouled out my team,” Calipari said. “Amazing that we had a chance.”
That was Calipari’s message of disappointment about the officiating after the Wildcats were whistled for 10 fouls in the first half, even though the Tar Heels were also called for 10. Over 40 minutes, Carolina did outscore the Wildcats from the line, 18-12.
Foul trouble sent four Kentucky starters, everybody but Isaiah Briscoe, to the bench. It was the aggressive and effective play of Dominique Hawkins that kept the Wildcats with five points (38-33) at halftime.
Kentucky changed the vibe at the start of the second half, forcing the Tar Heels to throw the ball away and miss shots. They rallied back quickly, scoring the first six second-half points.
The lead would change four more times.
“When they got back in the game, the more I think about it, the more I feel it’s my fault (because of defensive issues),” Derek Willis said. “I feel pretty horrible about all this. Regardless, UNC stood tall as a team.”
Fox (one) and Monk (two) made three shots from distance in the final 49 seconds to enable the Wildcats to twist a 70-64 deficit into a 73-73 tie. Monk made an extremely three from the top of the key with Maye in his grill and 7.2 seconds to play.
Calipari wanted to call timeout. He didn’t ask for it quickly enough.
“We always say if it’s more than six seconds, we’re going to attack, we’re not going to call timeout,” Williams said.
Williams learned basketball from Dean Smith, and Smith always preached inbounding the ball as quickly as possible. The Tar Heels did that. Pinson flashed up the center of the court until he drew a defender and then deftly found Maye on the left wing.
Carolina got the final shot – and made it.
“There’s only one best team in the country and it’s whoever is going to win the national championship,” Monk said. “We came up short.”
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