Column: What happened to Luke Maye?

RALEIGH — The potential All-American backpedaled with both hands above his head in celebration after knocking down a deep pull-up three late. Not long ago, both the display of the emotion and the performance would have been highly improbable for the junior.

So the question had to be asked:

What has happened to Luke Maye? 

A year ago, this performance would have seemed impossible. To score a career-high 33 points on 15 made shots — the most by any UNC player under Roy Williams — and lead No. 21 UNC (19-7, 8-5 ACC) to a 96-89 win over N.C. State (16-9, 6-6 ACC) would have been too much to ask of Maye, who added 17 rebounds on Saturday.

After all, it was almost exactly a year ago in this same building that Maye established a modest career high of 13 points in a 97-73 blowout. That night, his performance was merely fun-fact fodder sandwiched in a stat sheet packed with future NBA talent and rafters-bound Carolina legends.

UNC didn’t need Maye that night. They had seniors Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks and eventual NBA first-rounder Tony Bradley ahead of him on the depth chart. And the Tar Heels didn’t need him throughout a regular season in which they were crowned ACC champions.

Luke Maye (32) set his career high almost a year ago in this building. In Saturday's win over N.C. State, he nearly tripled it. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Luke Maye (32) set his career high almost a year ago in this building. In Saturday's win over N.C. State, he nearly tripled it. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

But then a funny thing happened.

Maye, who was recruited as a walk-on and was supposed to merely be a feel-good story, found himself on scouting reports and NCAA Tournament highlight reels and became a star for the defending national champions.

So that moment on Saturday in PNC Arena — when Maye stared down a seven-footer and drilled a shot from Huntersville — was one of many that represented a completed transformation.

It was a transformation to a new man: confident, dangerous and aggressive.

Maye’s career night was full of those moments — the ones that made you double-check to confirm that it really was the shy forward with a southern drawl who is on the short list for ACC Player of the Year.

There was the drive and monster dunk early in the second half that showed the undersized forward is no longer afraid of bigger and stronger defenders.

There was the pump-fake and drive to the rim that ended in a three-point play. That one, late in the second half, represented his meticulously-crafted jump shot that has garnered so much respect from opponents.

And then there was the pull-up, showing his development as a go-to player — one capable of taking over a game and scoring when his team needs it most.

The N.C. State defense had no answers for Luke Maye (32) on Thursday, when the junior scored a career-high 33 points on 15 made shots. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

The N.C. State defense had no answers for Luke Maye (32) on Thursday, when the junior scored a career-high 33 points on 15 made shots. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

“I’ve always had confidence in myself,” Maye said. “Confidence to play the way I know how to play, in my coach and my teammates. I just continue to try and play my game.”

Confidence seemed to be a shared sentiment in the Carolina locker room after the team avenged an overtime home loss to its rivals from down the road. In that game, the Wolfpack made 15 three-pointers and won by four despite being out-rebounded by 14.

In this one, N.C. State only made seven threes on 13 attempts. Maybe it's a sign the team has transformed alongside its improbable star.

“We’ve seen flashes of how we can play, how good we can be on the defensive end,” Kenny Williams said. “We know now we can hang our hats on the defensive end, and we’ll get the results that we want.

Williams is just as responsible for the team's transformation as anyone else. After all, it was he who scored 20 points to beat Duke on Thursday. And it was he who pumped, side-stepped and calmly drained the three-pointer with 1:13 left to put the Wolfpack away for good.

“I’m glad they left me open,” Williams said. “Once it left my hands, I knew it was cash.”

Kenny Williams (24) hit the biggest shot of the game against N.C. State after putting together the biggest performance of his life against Duke. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Kenny Williams (24) hit the biggest shot of the game against N.C. State after putting together the biggest performance of his life against Duke. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

The Pack didn’t have an answer for that shot, but Carolina had answered plenty in the game.

The Tar Heels have, at least temporarily, fixed their three-point defense. They've found their balance in a starting lineup lacking anyone taller than 6-foot-8. They've shown they are capable of beating a good team in a raucous environment.

And they've officially unveiled to the world their finished product of a power forward — one just as likely to address you as “sir” as to dunk on you. And so it had to be in PNC Arena where Luke Maye again set his career high in scoring almost exactly a year later.

Only this time, it was different.

@jleland_

Photos by Gabi Palacio