MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It happened fast, because that’s exactly how Roy Williams wanted it, and how Roy’s players knew he wanted it.
Just as Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke players are so clock-aware they sprint to the bench the moment a TV timeout is due, just as Bob Huggins’ West Virginia Mountaineers know to “get opposite” and prepare to rebound from the weak side when a shot is attempted, the North Carolina Tar Heels know that if there are more than six seconds on the clock in an end-game session they are never to call timeout. Just go.
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And so they did. The play that sent them on to the Final Four took 6.9 seconds, and that’s only because nearly two of them were spent with the ball in the air and all the Wildcats hoping it would miss and all the Tar Heels certain it would not.
It was a blur for everyone, but so much goes into a play such as Luke Maye’s 18-foot jumper to give the top-seeded Tar Heels a 75-73 victory over No. 2 seed Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament South Region final. It started with the basics, and moved quickly into the kind of nuance that decides who gets to play on college basketball’s grandest stage and who must live with a most sudden and impactful defeat.
1. Time and score
North Carolina’s players knew exactly the situation when UK guard Malik Monk fired in a 3-pointer that tied the game with 7.2 seconds remaining. Remember on the first day of the tournament, when Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis lost track of the score and purposefully fouled Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh inside the final 20 seconds of a tie game?
It would have been much easier for that to happen here, given the ferocity of Kentucky’s comeback. The Wildcats recovered from seven points down in the final 54 seconds to tie it on Monk’s top-of-the-key 3.
The Tar Heels were not deflated in the least. Center Kennedy Meeks immediately grabbed the ball out of the net and looked to inbound. To his left, UK center Bam Adebayo slightly blocked Meeks’ view of point guard Joel Berry and was a threat to deflect or steal the ball, so Meeks looked back to the right and saw wing Theo Pinson uncovered.
“When I got the ball, I wanted to just attack,” Pinson said. “I didn’t want to settle. I wanted to get downhill, and they didn’t get back as fast as I thought they would. So I was like, let me keep putting pressure on the defense. They were staying with Joel and Justin (Jackson) at halfcourt, so I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to have to make a play.'”
2. No timeout
Carolina was not the only team empowered to call timeout in that situation. Kentucky could have asked for one to position its defense, being well aware of Williams’ established preference in this situation.
“When that 3 when in and tied the game, I probably should have called a timeout,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “It entered my mind, but they got that son-of-a-B in so quick, I couldn’t get anybody to do it. But I needed to stop that right there.
“Somebody said, ‘Well, what happened?’ I said, 'I don’t know,' and I probably will never know because I won’t watch this tape. . . .Watched enough tapes all year. Watched a thousand tapes. I’m not watching a thousand and one.”
3. What happened
As Pinson crossed the midcourt line, he was confronted by Wildcatsfreshman guard De’Aaron Fox. Jackson was in the right corner and well-covered by Monk. Berry was slightly behind him with UK’s Isaiah Briscoe nearby. So Pinson kept pushing. With Fox on his right hip near the top of the key, Pinson moved to the left. Right there came the decision that decided the game.
Kentucky senior Derek Willis, who had been racing Maye up the floor, feared Pinson was getting a step on Fox as he moved left. Willis squared up in the center of the lane, at the foul line, to help cut off the drive. Maye saw this and drifted toward the left wing.
Thing was, Fox never lost control of Pinson. He never gave him a clear lane to the goal, and Pinson was moving to his weaker left hand. A game-winning shot from him would have required a miraculous finish.
4. This was not a miracle.
It turned out to be one of the easiest of Maye’s six made field goals. When Pinson stopped his drive just to the left of the foul lane, Fox was still between him and the goal. But Willis’ retreat from that initial foul-line confrontation carried him down toward the left block. At the moment Maye caught the ball, Willis was screened from challenging the shot by Fox, and Fox was screened by Pinson.
The only defender with any chance to challenge the shot was Briscoe, who was behind the action defending Berry as Pinson dropped a short backward pass to Maye. Briscoe arrived too late to even get in Maye’s sightline upon release.
“I saw an opening, and I didn’t know if it was a 3 or a 2. I’m still not sure,” Maye said. “I luckily knocked it down, which was big for me. I’m thankful my teammates put me in that position.”
DeCOURCY: Maye goes from walk-on to Tar Heel hero
Williams made some excellent adjustments in this game, and he was wise enough to ride Maye’s unexpected brilliance for 20 minutes against the Wildcats. But on the play that ended Kentucky’s season, he did almost nothing. The coaching for that play had been done long ago.
He explained that sometimes the Tar Heels practice with 15 seconds on the shot clock so they can work at getting a quality shot in a short period of time. “Not just throw it up,” he said.
There was some good fortune for North Carolina on the play. Berry played with an injured ankle that he said afterward was significantly painful. Williams said it worked out better that the ball was entered to Pinson because he wasn’t sure how fast Berry would have been advancing the ball.
“When they scored, I was just screaming: 'Go! Go! Go!'” Williams said. “And Theo goes down the court and finds Luke, and Luke made a big-time shot.”
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