CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Luke Maye keeps handling everything thrown at him, from the pressure of taking a last-second shot to reach the Final Four to playing as North Carolina’s new leading man.
The 6-foot-8 junior has grown from one-time unheralded recruit and role player to the 21st-ranked Tar Heels’ most consistent performer entering Thursday’s rivalry game against No. 9 Duke. The next challenge is daunting — help UNC handle the Blue Devils’ possible one-and-done frontcourt of Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr — but Maye won’t change the approach that brought him here.
“I don’t want to be viewed as somebody who is really caring all about their personal endeavors,” Maye said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I could care less if I score 30 points or score two points. I just want to win.
“I don’t want to be a part of a team that is remembered for, after winning a national championship, having a letdown. I think that’s something that really drives me and drives my performance each and every night.”
Everyone knew the Tar Heels (17-7, 6-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) needed Maye to thrive after losing Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley from the frontcourt. Few expected this.
He leads them in scoring (18.3) and rebounding (10.3) while ranking among the national leaders with 12 double-doubles. He’s shooting about 52 percent and nearly 49 percent from 3-point range as a stretch-the-floor threat. He frequently battles bigger or stronger opponents, allowing UNC to lean on a small-ball lineup while freshman bigs Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley deal with youthful inconsistency.
And he’s on pace to become only the sixth UNC player to average a double-double in four decades, a list beginning with 1998 national player of the year Antawn Jamison and including Tyler Hansbrough, the program’s career scoring and rebounding leader.
The son of former UNC quarterback Mark Maye first committed as a preferred walk-on before a scholarship opened up ahead of his freshman season. He heard questions whether he was good enough or if his roster spot came “because of the name, because of the history.”
These days, he can savor some told-you-so moments.
“I always knew that I could play at this level, and a lot of people did not think I could,” Maye said, adding: “I definitely have made some small remarks to some people that I probably should’ve kept to myself. It’s kind of the nature of being human and trying to do the best you can to really stick up for yourself.”
His teammates didn’t need convincing.
They remember the composed guy who came off the bench to become the most outstanding player of last year’s NCAA South Regional. The highlight was a play sure to live on in March Madness lore: a winning jumper with 0.3 seconds left to beat Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
“He takes any challenge that he faces, he tries to do everything he can to win that challenge,” said senior Theo Pinson. “He understands that he’s an underdog and people are all shocked. Nobody on our team is shocked because he does it in practice. . We just want him to keep playing with confidence. He’s a bad dude.”
Maye had 26 points and 10 rebounds in the November opener against Northern Iowa for an immediate sign he was ready for more. There was also last month’s 32-point, 18-rebound showing against Boston College , and he’s averaged 25.5 points in the four games immediately following his only single-digit outputs.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Maye was “as good a player as there is in the country, and strong.”
“Maye can bring it down the court, he can be in the post and in the same exchange, go out to the 3-point line,” Krzyzewski said Wednesday. “It’s a tough team to defend.”
The same is true for Maye and the Tar Heels against the Blue Devils (19-4, 7-3). They have to tussle with a possible No. 1 overall NBA pick in Bagley (21.4 points, 11.2 rebounds) and Carter (14.4 points, 9.6 rebounds).
Maye sounds eager for challenges like this: “The better the players, the more excited I get.”
“The biggest thing for me is remembering who I am,” Maye said, “and remembering I need to play to my strengths to be the most effective I can be for my team.”
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Durham contributed to this report.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap