An epic matchup between two superpowers of the college basketball world featured stars, trash talk, furious runs...and was decided by the most unlikely of heroes. The 2017 Elite Eight victory over Kentucky in Memphis will live in Tar Heel lore until the end of time, and will ensure that Luke David Maye will never have to buy an alcoholic beverage in Chapel Hill ever again.
The Tar Heels had come into the 2016-17 season seeking redemption for the previous years’ title game loss and, thus far, things had gone according to plan: They had won the ACC by two full games, they were a #1 seed, and they had survived a Round of 32 scare from Arkansas. A comfortable win over Butler sent the Heels to the Regional Final where they met Kentucky, who had just eviscerated UCLA courtesy of De’Aron Fox’s evisceration of Lonzo Ball.
UNC and Kentucky had already played a classic game earlier in the 2016-17 season. The CBS Classic to be exact. The Tar Heels and Wildcats staged a brilliant shootout in Las Vegas that ended 103-100 ‘Cats and came down to the final seconds. Malik Monk was brilliant, scoring 47 points on 18-28 shooting (8-12 from 3), while Justin Jackson was superb for UNC, racking up 34 points. Monk’s go-ahead three with 16.7 seconds proved to be the game winner and UNC was haunted by a failed final possession.
When the two teams met in Memphis for the Elite Eight, it was billed as a heavyweight rematch. Quite frankly, it was a matchup worthy of the Final Four, with All-Americans Monk, Fox, and Justin Jackson on the court. All told, ten players who would receive NBA contracts would take the floor that night.
There was one major difference, however: The Tar Heels had been missing Theo Pinson in the first matchup and had tasked Kenny Williams with guarding Monk. This time around, Pinson was back but Williams had been lost for the season to injury. This meant a change in coverage: Justin Jackson was put on Monk and Pinson guarded De’Aron Fox. This would make a massive difference.
UNC pounded the Wildcats inside early on, on both sides of the ball. The Heels brought a harder edge to their game than some might have expected from them: Justin Jackson (just about the most low-key player UNC has ever had) could be seen woofing at Malik Monk after a made layup. Kennedy Meeks was performing brilliantly both on the glass and defensively.
Bam Adebayo and De’Aron Fox spent much of the half on the bench with two early fouls apiece, and Monk was bothered by the length of Jackson. However, thanks to the play of the supporting cast, particularly Isaiah Briscoe, Dominique Hawkins, and Isaac Humphies, Kentucky hung in there. UNC led just 38-33 at the half and there was a palpable sense that UNC had missed an opportunity to kill off the game early. Jackson and Berry had done the bulk of the damage on offense for UNC, while Luke Maye, who had been brilliant in the Sweet 16 against Butler, had stayed hot and knocked down a few baskets of his own.
In the second half, buckets from Derek Willis and Bam Adebayo brought Kentucky level, then a back and forth battle ensued. For all the talent on the floor, it was the play of two role players that led the way: Luke Maye nailed a three to give Carolina a five-point lead, then on its next possession he attacked the basket and converted an and-one. With ten minutes to go, it was 53-47 UNC. Then it was Isaac Humphries’ turn. Coming into the Elite Eight matchup, Kentucky had not lost a single game all year in which Humphries had scored. Over a four minute stretch, Humphries had eight of UK’s next ten points, helping them to surge into the lead. Meanwhile, Carolina had stalled offensively, only making two shots of their own in that stretch. At the five-minute mark, UNC trailed 64-59 and Roy Williams took a timeout.
The critics of Roy Williams frequently point to his lack of timeouts in key situations and supposed deficiencies as an Xs and Os strategist. But on this particular occasion, there can be no doubt: Roy made a masterful move. After the timeout, UNC switched to a 2-3 zone and Kentucky suddenly had no answers. They missed their next five shots and tough shots by Jackson and Pinson jumpstarted UNC’s offense. The Heels went on a 12-0 run over the next four minutes and after Pinson made two free throws with 54 seconds it was 71-64 UNC and the Heels looked Final Four bound.
But the Wildcats weren’t finished. Fox nailed a corner three to cut the lead to four and after a Kentucky timeout, UNC turned the ball over on the inbounds pass. Monk, held in check all night, then drilled a contested three to cut the lead to one. UNC hit Jackson on a leak out on the out of bounds pass to bump the lead back to 73-70, and Kentucky turned it over with 17 seconds left. Jackson was fouled and sent to the line, but missed the front end of a one and one. This set the stage for one of the most memorable finishes in NCAA Tournament history:
First, let’s give credit where credit is due: Malik Monk hit an absolutely preposterous three to tie the game. Heck, the three he hit BEFORE that was a preposterous three as well. But in the bedlam that followed, Kentucky didn’t call time. UNC, meanwhile, didn’t panic after they had appeared to have blown the game: Meeks inbounded instantly to Pinson, who took it the length of the court, catching the Kentucky defense off guard. Maye, trailing the play on the left was uncovered and Pinson pitched it back to him. Maye had a great look and...let’s have Celine take it from here:
Maye finished with 17 points and was named MVP of the South Regional. Jackson had 19 points, five boards, and four assists. Meanwhile Meeks, despite only having seven points, was a titan on the interior, ripping down 17 boards to go with 4 blocks. He was instrumental in UNC’s dominance in the paint, where they out rebounded the Wildcats 44-34 and outscored them 34-26. Fox and Monk, who had terrorized UNC in the first matchup, were held to a combined 25 points by Jackson and Pinson, who outdueled the two future one-and-done lottery picks.
UNC would go on to win the 2017 National Championship and that night in Memphis has gone down in history as the greatest game between the Tar Heels and Wildcats.