MEMPHIS – (Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – In a Final Four overrun by fresh faces, North Carolina is the one old hand that maneuvered through all the minefields to make it to Glendale, Arizona. Carolina’s Luke Maye sank an 18-footer from the left wing with 0.3 seconds left lifted the top-seeded Tar Heels to a 75-73 win over second-seeded Kentucky for the South Region championship Sunday at FedEx Forum.
Luke Maya (32)
After the Wildcats’ Malik Monk drained a fadeaway 3-pointer from the top of the key with 7.3 seconds remaining to even the score at 73, Theo Pinson rushed the ball down the middle of the floor. Pinson reached the lane and dished to Maye, who rose up and swished a jumper for the last of his career-high 17 points.
Kentucky’s final response was a length of the floor inbounds pass by Derek Willis that nearly hit the bottom of the scoreboard and landed out of bounds without being touched. The Tar Heels then inbounded the ball, ending a game that at times was ragged but featured a bunch of big plays at winning time.
The Wildcats (32-6) led 64-59 with 5:10 left after Isaac Humphries’ jumper, but North Carolina (31-7) scored 12 consecutive points and owned a 71-64 advantage with less than a minute left.
Kentucky stormed back with 3-pointers by De’Aaron Fox, Monk and then Monk again to set up Maye’s dramatic game-winner.
Justin Jackson tallied 19 points for the Tar Heels, who meet Oregon on Saturday night in the national semifinals. Joel Berry added 11 despite missing part of the first half when he re-injured an already balky ankle.
Fox and Bam Adebayo each scored 13 points to lead five Wildcats in double figures. Monk and Humphries added 12 apiece, and Dominique Hawkins hit for 10 points.
The teams combined for 203 points in a December matchup won by Kentucky, but it was apparent early this game would not measure up to that one in terms of offensive fireworks.
North Carolina led most of the first half, establishing a nine-point lead at one stage before settling for a 38-33 edge at intermission. The Wildcats did well to stay that close, considering that they had four starters on the bench before the half’s end with two fouls apiece.
Fouls also colored the Tar Heels’ early effort. Kentucky was in the bonus before the half was 10 minutes old. North Carolina spent several minutes using a backcourt of Nate Britt and Stilman White, a former walk-on.
NOTES: North Carolina and Kentucky entered Sunday’s game with 244 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 ever scored on North Carolina. Duke’s Dick Groat had 48 in a 1952 game. … North Carolina’s assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.52-to-1 is the third best in school history