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UNC at Duke: Player of the Game - Luke Maye

The seniors stepped up and the preseason All-American silenced his critics.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time, it was declared that Luke Maye couldn’t match up against elite competition. While the senior big man likely benefited from the injury-forced absence of Duke’s best player, Zion Williamson, Maye tormented the Devils’ four leftover McDonald’s All-Americans and two projected top NBA draft picks in a thoroughly satisfying 88-72 Carolina win last night in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Maye scored 30 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, a stat line that resembles his performances against that other team on Tobacco Road. He made 14 of his 24 shots and chipped in two assists and two steals with only two turnovers. By the time Maye wrapped up his scoring on a layup assisted by Kenny Williams to make the lead 78-61 with 4:32 to play, the only thing left unanswered about this game was how long Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would drag it out with his agonizing tactics.

Whatever void Williamson’s unexpected departure created was quickly exploited by Maye and sophomore forward Garrison Brooks on the interior. Coach Roy Williams prepared the bigs well with a smart game plan of getting the ball inside and looking to turn a good shot into a great one – a game plan that clearly was not just a sudden product of, “Holy crap, Zion is out, now we can go to work!” But that certainly didn’t hurt, and Maye scored 14 of his 18 first-half points in the paint, going up strong and showing deft touch time after time.

Maye also nailed Carolina’s lone 3-pointer of the first half – one of only two total makes from distance for the Heels – to stretch the lead to nine with 3:11 remaining. It was a critical shot from the left wing (sound familiar?) that provided a bigger cushion before intermission after the Devils had cut the lead from 13 to six.

He led the charge as the Heels dominated points in the paint 58-28. Maye is the first UNC player to post a 30-and-15 game against Duke since Billy Cunningham in 1963 (Art Heyman also accomplished the feat earlier that year, while Brice Johnson had 29 and 19 in the 2016 home loss).

Most importantly, Maye took what the defense gave him and didn’t force the issue too much while still looking to be aggressive. He cashed in on the generous looks that Carolina’s sounds offense and Duke’s leaky defense conspired to create. By my count, Maye missed only one shot that could be classified as easy and he limited his difficult attempts (though he did fire up a couple).

As usual, senior guard Cam Johnson is also very worthy of Player of the Game consideration. Johnson had 26 points, seven rebounds, four assists, and two steals despite missing all four tries from beyond the arc and leaving briefly with a turned ankle. He connected on 11-of-13 two-point shots and scored in a variety of ways: layups, putbacks, midrange jumpers, you name it.

Carolina received more unsung efforts from Brooks and junior backup point guard Seventh Woods. Brooks went 6-of-7 from the floor for 14 points to go along with eight rebounds and two steals. Woods, meanwhile, scored five points, dished out three assists, and plucked two steals in 12 excellent minutes that helped UNC build the lead in each half. On an off night from freshman point guard Coby White (3-of-14 shooting, six turnovers), Woods served as a steady alternative to keep the Heels in control.

But the biggest star in Durham was undoubtedly Maye. He was opportunistic and set the tone in a contest UNC never trailed. And he continued to offer hope going forward, having now scored 20 or more points in four of his last six outings.