By Bucky Dent, The Sports Xchange
MEMPHIS — In 1992, Duke’s Christian Laettner ended arguably the best game in NCAA Tournament history with a buzzer-beater that handed Kentucky a heartbreaking loss in the East Regional championship game.
Twenty-five years later, the Wildcats experienced more end-of-game heartbreak against another blueblood opponent from the Atlantic Coast Conference, one that learned all too well last spring what it is like to endure a gut-wrenching defeat with everything on the line.
North Carolina’s Luke Maye drained an 18-foot jumper with 0.3 of a second left Sunday as the top-seeded Tar Heels claimed the last spot in a Final Four full of fresh faces with a 75-73 decision in the South Regional final at FedExForum.
After Kentucky’s Malik Monk swished a fallaway 3-pointer with 7.2 seconds remaining to tie the score at 73, North Carolina guard Theo Pinson rushed the ball down the middle of the floor. Penetrating the lane, he dished to the left wing, where Maye rose up and knocked down the basket for the last of his career-high 17 points.
“Theo came down the court and he picked off my man,” Maye said. “I stepped back a little bit and I got the shot, and luckily, it went in. I feel so blessed.”
For Maye, it was the greatest moment of his career. For he and most of his teammates, it was a 180-degree turn from the last game of this nature they experienced in the NCAA Tournament. Last April, the Tar Heels tied Villanova in the title game on an impossible double-clutch 3-pointer by Marcus Paige, only to lose at the buzzer when Kris Jenkins nailed a 25-footer.
This time, the last-second shot advanced North Carolina.
“Theo made a heck of a play,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “And what a big-time shot by Luke. We weren’t going to call a timeout because it was 7.2 seconds, I believe. We wanted them to go attack.”
After Maye’s shot, the Wildcats (32-6) had one last chance, but Derek Willis’ length-of-the-court inbounds pass nearly hit the bottom of the scoreboard and sailed out of bounds.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said if he had the final sequence to do over again, he would have used his final timeout after Monk sank the Wildcats’ third 3-pointer in the final 49 seconds to erase their 71-64 deficit.
“They got that (ball) in so quick I couldn’t get to anybody to do it,” Calipari said. “But I needed to stop that right there. Someone said, ‘What happened?’ I said that I don’t know and probably never will know, because I never watch the last tape of the season. Watched a thousand tapes. I’m not watching a thousand and one.”
Were Calipari to break his personal rule and eyeball this game again, he would see that Kentucky owned a 64-59 advantage with 5:10 left after backup forward Isaac Humphries canned a jumper for the last of his career-high 12 points.
But Williams used a rare timeout, switched his team to a 2-3 zone and saw North Carolina score the next 12 points. Pinson scored six of his nine points to fuel the spurt, making a tough runner and also drilling four straight free throws.
Justin Jackson finished with 19 points and also played tough defense on Monk, limiting him to 10 shots and 12 points. Joel Berry added 11 points despite missing part of the first half when he reinjured an ankle, hobbling to the locker room for treatment.
Fox and Bam Adebayo led five Wildcats in double figures with 13 points. Dominique Hawkins came off the bench to finish with 10.
However, it was Maye who had the final word and ensured the Tar Heels of making it to Glendale, Ariz., to play Oregon in the second semifinal on Saturday.
It was an ending Williams desired after the last play of last season’s national title game.
“I wanted them to get back because so many of those guys played in that game,” he said. “The most inadequate feeling I’ve ever had as a coach was what to say to my kids in the locker room that night. I’m really happy for this team and the work they’ve put in.”
NOTES: North Carolina and Kentucky have 245 combined NCAA Tournament wins, the most of any matchup in tournament history. … Wildcats G Malik Monk’s 47 points in a Dec. 17 win over the Tar Heels are the second-most points an opponent has scored on UNC. Duke’s Dick Groat had 48 in a 1952 game. … North Carolina’s assist-turnover ratio of 1.52-1 is the third best in school history. However, the Tar Heels had 17 assists and 16 turnovers Sunday.