COLUMBUS, Ohio – As far as omens go, this was a pretty good one.
If you’re inclined to put stock in those types of things, that is. Which North Carolina coach Roy Williams most certainly is.
When the Tar Heels were making their run to the national title two years ago – their sixth for those keeping score – they got one big game after another from Luke Maye. There was his career high against Butler in the Sweet 16. He topped that the very next game, and it was his 19-footer with less than a second left that carried North Carolina over Kentucky and into the Final Four.
All told, he scored in double figures in half of the Tar Heels’ games during the NCAA tournament – not bad for a guy who’d only done it three times during the regular season.
So if anyone is handicapping favorites to cut down the nets next month in Minneapolis, you would be wise to check out Sunday’s box score.
Maye had a team-high 20 points and 14 rebounds in North Carolina’s 81-59 victory over ninth-seeded Washington. The victory moves the top-seeded Tar Heels onto the Sweet 16, where they’ll face Auburn on Friday in Kansas City.
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What the stats don’t make clear is how vital Maye was to North Carolina. Washington has a suffocating zone, similar to Syracuse’s, only their personnel allows them to extend it out longer so they can take away the three-point shot, as well.
But Maye is such a force inside that Washington’s zone couldn’t operate with its usual effectiveness. At 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, he’s near impossible to corral, and time and again the Tar Heels looked for him down low.
He’s also got a nice jump shot, and that versatility made it impossible for the Huskies to neutralize him.
After Washington had whittled what had been a 14-point North Carolina to seven points with four minutes left in the first half, Maye banked a short jumper in off the glass. Three minutes later, he added another short jumper to extend the lead back to 10 points.
North Carolina couldn’t get anything going after the half, and a three by David Crisp narrowed Carolina’s lead to 51-46, the closest they’d been since early in the first half. Cam Johnson made a three and a jumper, and Maye added a three of his own.
Maye then scored on a layup and a jump shot, and Carolina was back up 53-36. There were still 15 minutes to play, but the game was effectively over.
Carolina is so stocked that you could pick just about anyone on the roster as the player of the game. Phenom freshman Coby White shook off his rough night Friday to score 17, going 4-of-7 from three-point range. Nassir Little also had 20, and Johnson finished with 13.
But it was Maye who was the rock, the steadying force Carolina needed to fend off a Washington team that was looking to make a name for itself. The Tar Heels would finish with a 38-24 advantage in the paint, not easy to do against that zone.
It also had a whopping 48-24 edge in rebounds.
It’s too early to say whether North Carolina will finish this tournament with another title. There’s far too much basketball to be played and too many good teams still playing.
But sometimes you can get a hint of how things are going to go. And this is as good as it gets for Carolina.