CHAPEL HILL — Luke Maye was paid as good a compliment as they come. Kind words were there for Coby White, too.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his Duke players also heard them.
Crazy thing, this Tobacco Road basketball frenzy we love so much. They play the best basketball in the country, fight tooth and nail for every dribble, then show the best sportsmanship when the day is done.
“Those are three unbelievable kids,” Krzyzewski said of Carolina’s three seniors after Saturday’s 79-70 win by the No. 3 Tar Heels over No. 4 Duke. “Luke, he’s been one of the best players in the country. Just a stalwart. What does he play — what position? Winner. He’s just a winner.”
Maye was genuinely appreciative when he heard.
“I respect Coach K and everything he does,” Maye said a bit later outside the Carolina locker room. “I’m fortunate for him to say those kind words. He’s one of the greatest coaches ever.”
Maye will go down as one of the greatest stories in a Carolina basketball history chocked full of them. The son of a Tar Heel quarterback is a good bet for All-America, yet the former walk-on who earned a scholarship still remembers, as does the coach, a meeting in Williams’ office after his freshman season.
“He said, ‘Coach, nobody will outwork me,’” Williams recalled.
Then he backed it up.
Maye called Saturday’s win one of the most memorable of his career, one that gave Carolina its first regular season series sweep since 2009 — when he was in the sixth grade.
With Carolina trailing by a deuce at intermission, the coach told his team they hadn’t done what they were supposed to do. Seniors Maye, Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson responded with all 12 points in the first three minutes, sending Carolina ahead 50-44.
A few minutes later, White got hot. In a pivotal sequence, the Goldsboro freshman had a pair of 3-pointers around Garrison Brooks’ rebound slam. Carolina led 70-60 on the way to a 15-point lead.
Duke was staggered; the Smith Center was exploding in glee.
“What they’ve done with him, they’ve given him the freedom to do that,” Krzyzewski said of White. “Once he feels it, he knows he has the support of his teammates and his coaching staff.”
The Blue Devils fought within five, but no closer. They had chances. Carolina didn’t make a field goal the final 6:47 and still clinched a share of the ACC regular season crown, the 18th time in 31 years for a Williams-coached team.
“I was raised as a student at North Carolina, and as a high school coach, I still listened to what Coach Smith said,” Williams said of his mentor, Dean Smith. “I do believe what he said — it’s harder to accomplish something over two-and-a-half to three months rather than three days. And now, there’s 15 teams.
“We set goals, and that is the first goal we set. It’s harder to sustain something. I’m proud of that. Coach Smith taught me a heck of a lot.”
He taught sportsmanship, too. Game after game, Smith would come before the scribes and Woody Durham with the radio network, and the first thing uttered was a congratulations to the opponent — win or lose. It was genuine, from the heart, the way Smith coached his players.
That might be the thing that most ties Williams, the man with his name on the court, to Smith, the man whose name is on the building. He was emotional in a pregame seniors ceremony, and again postgame with their careers flashing through his mind as he spoke of their characteristics and accomplishments.
Sure, he said, he tried to get those one-and-doners that have been choosing Duke and Kentucky. But the consolation prize, if two trips to the national championship and a ring in the last three years can be called that, has worked out well for he and his program. Whoever is in a North Carolina practice jersey, he vows to “coach the dickens” out of them.
“I’m fairly confident, if you give me really good kids, we’ll play really hard and we’re going to win some games that maybe we shouldn’t,” Williams said. “Kenny and Luke, neither of those guys was in the top 100.”
On the final night of the ACC regular season, in the nation’s best college basketball rivalry, two top five teams exhausted themselves on the court. The coaches lauded each other’s teams and the players gave credit where due.
Everybody was all in with their program, two bluebloods of the sport.
“I love coaching those seniors,” Williams said. “Can you imagine how lucky I’ve been?”
No more than the Smith Center’s 21,750 who bore witness Saturday.
Tobacco Road never disappoints.
The Associated Press
North Carolina’s Coby White defends Duke’s Tre Jones (3) in the first half Saturday night. White heated up offensively in the second half, finishing with 21 points.
The Associated Press
North Carolina’s Luke Maye (left) and Duke’s Tre Jones battle for the ball during the first half Saturday in the Smith Center. Maye had 16 rebounds, seven assists and seven points in Carolina’s 79-70 win.