One year after losing the national championship on a buzzer beater by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins, the North Carolina Tar Heels will return to the Final Four thanks to a (near) buzzer beater of their own. It came in a thrilling 10 seconds of basketball in which Kentucky tied the game with a three and Carolina stormed right down the floor for the game-winner by Luke Maye. It was the greatest stretch of tournament basketball since that UNC loss one year ago and worth another look and maybe two, three or 40 after that.
Besides the obvious, here are three things that made the endgame so great.
1. No timeout
Red Auerbach didn’t like calling timeouts with his team trailing in last-second situations. Not only did a timeout give the opponent time to set its defense, but Auerbach used to say the most important part of his job took place on the days without games. It was about preparing his team for every situation. Thus, the players didn’t need a timeout because, if Auerbach had done his job, the guys on the floor knew what to do late in a game.
For whatever reason, Roy Williams didn’t call a timeout after Malik Monk drained a game-trying three-pointer with 7.8 seconds left in the South regional final. Instead, UNC quickly inbounded the ball to Theo Pinson and caught Kentucky a little slow in transition. Pinson went almost the length of the court, drew the defense into the paint and calmly tossed the ball to Maye while continuing to pull Kentucky defenders off the ball. Maye stopped, set, shot and swished, effectively ending the game with his near buzzer-beater. It was ironic: After a game that saw Carolina fold whenever the pressure ratcheted up, the team was cool as can be when it mattered most.
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Other teams would have pressed forward too, and it isn’t as if calling a timeout is an automatic negative. Carolina fans know that well, due to the aforementioned 2016 title game. That night, UNC’s Marcus Paige hit a game-tying three with 4.7 seconds left. Villanova called timeout and, a Kris Jenkins (true) buzzer beater later, UNC had lost the most heartbreaking title game ever.
Different strokes for different folks. Villanova was right to call timeout because Jay Wright did it and Jenkins won the game. Carolina shouldn’t have called timeout because Pinson hit Maye for the win. It also worked. It’s a result-oriented business and it skews discussions because the roles could have easily been flipped in either game. Timeout. No timeout. You can’t prove success one way or the other.
But if you have a team you’ve coached up well and they know what to do with the ball in a tie game with 7.8 seconds left, then nothing you draw up on a chalkboard is going to be better than what they improvise for themselves, especially because whatever Roy came up with, the Hall of Fame coach on the other sideline would have been trying to stop.
2. Maye’s hustle
This is what Vine (RIP) was made for. The best part of the 10 seconds involves a player away from the ball. After Monk’s shot splashes, watch Maye — the eventual hero — sprint down the floor to position himself on the left wing. Kentucky is out of sorts. Nobody’s quite sure who’s guarding whom. So by the time Pinson gets down inside the lane, Maye is camped out, Kentucky’s Derek Willis (35) has run himself out of the play, De’Aaron Fox (0) gets moved out of the way and Isaiah Briscoe (13) is watching it all unfold from a few feet behind. The blame shouldn’t be on Kentucky, though the Wildcats could easily have done more — Willis could have moved away from the ball and Briscoe could have done … something. This was a North Carolina success, however. The Heels executed perfectly.
3. Briscoe to Monk, by way of Willis
Without Willis and Briscoe there’s probably not a tie game in which they would end up playing loose defense. Briscoe dribbled right, flipped the ball to Monk who ran off a high screen from Willis. Monk still had to make the shot with two white jerseys in his face, but the split seconds Briscoe bought on the flip and Willis created with the screen provided just enough spacing for Monk to get off the shot.
Again, watch the replay. It’s a thing of beauty. For a game that was as ugly as it was entertaining, the last 10 seconds were an offensive clinic orchestrated by two of the best teams in the country playing under two of the best coaches the sport has ever seen. Now North Carolina is going to the Final Four while Kentucky is again left to ponder an opportunity missed in an Elite Eight game that felt like a heavyweight bout won at the final bell.