MEMPHIS, Tenn. – In a game that should be remembered as a Roy Williams coaching masterpiece, an X’s and O’s clinic that his detractors can no longer overlook, North Carolina’s 75-73 win over Kentucky came down to the simplest of fundamentals the Hall of Fame coach has taught throughout his 29 years.
There will be plenty of time to dissect the laundry list of coaching decisions Williams made throughout this game that put his team in position to win on Luke Maye’s jumper from a step inside the arc with 0.3 seconds to play.
There’s the fact that the Hall of Famer stole two minutes midway through the first half with four starters on the bench and without a primary scorer on the floor. Or that he frustrated Kentucky's Malik Monk with Justin Jackson's length after the freshman toppled UNC with 47 points in Las Vegas. There’s the decision to play zone to disrupt Kentucky’s offensive rhythm after John Calipari’s Wildcats had made 9-of-11 field goal attempts midway through the second half.
There’s his timeout with 5:03 to play and his team down five points that prompted a 12-0 run, and there’s his decision not to call a timeout after Monk tied the game with nine seconds to play.
And then there’s the move that seems like a no-brainer now, long after the final buzzer, to give Maye the second-half minutes typically reserved for Isaiah Hicks, who struggled down low against the Wildcats.
Maye’s game-winner was not the result of a tactical move by Williams, however. It was simply a matter of Theo Pinson making the easy play.
Kentucky allowed Kennedy Meeks an unchallenged inbounds pass to Pinson with 7.2 seconds left. Monk tracked Justin Jackson down the court, while Isaiah Briscoe stayed attached to Joel Berry. At that point, it became a transition game of 3-on-3 with the ball in the hands of UNC’s best facilitator and Kentucky freshman De’Aaron Fox tasked with defending Pinson the length of the floor without fouling.
“They sort of just left me a little bit and wanted me to make the play,” Pinson said, “and I took the challenge. I was just trying to make plays for my teammates. I’m not scared of the moment. I’m not scared to make those plays. I know I can play basketball. I’m glad I made them pay.”
After the inbound pass and Pinson’s turn up the court, Maye’s immediate instinct was to provide options on the offensive end. Seven seconds is an eternity in the Tar Heels’ world.
“I saw Theo start to sprint down the court, so I thought that I had to trail him and see if I could get a rebound or something,” Maye said.
Derek Willis was running with Maye, who saw his teammate cut across the floor as he crossed midcourt. The sophomore forward elected to back pedal towards the 3-point line instead of clogging the lane for a drive. With the game clock ticking below four seconds, it would have been understandable for Pinson to force the ball to the rim or take a leaning 12-footer off the left side. Instead, the junior wing was intent on reading Willis.
If the Wildcat senior stayed with Maye, Pinson was taking Fox to the hoop. If Willis committed to helping Fox stop the drive, Pinson was pitching the ball to Maye. Willis tracked Pinson, who passed back to Maye for UNC's latest clutch basket in a history chock-full of them.
“He found me and I just knocked it in,” Maye said. “It’s a great feeling.”
Williams, who is taking his ninth team to the Final Four, could have called a timeout after Monk tied the game. Few, if any, would have criticized the decision. By letting his players play, Pinson and Maye added a dramatic layer to the long history of the NCAA Tournament. By making the easy play, the Tar Heels will play on, making one final trip for the Final Four.
“It’s just something I know to do now,” Pinson said. “Forcing things in this type of game is tough because guys are as good as you. You’ve just got to make the easy play at all times. Once I did that, we got a wide open shot.”
And Maye became a Tar Heel legend.