MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Miracles rarely unfold twice in one spontaneous seven-second burst.
Miracles often stand alone. Miracles tend to reserve their own plots in history.
Miracles aren’t matched or nullified by a fringe, former top-100 recruit who surrendered a game-tying bucket with the Final Four at stake on the previous play.
That’s why North Carolina’s Luke Maye (5.5 PPG) took three deep breaths while he sat in his chair at the postgame dais, drenched in sweat and swagger, searching to decipher the furious finish to his team’s 75-73 victory over Kentucky in the Elite Eight at FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tennessee, on Sunday night.
He had the perplexed gaze of a man wondering how he’d sunk the game-winning shot with 0.3 seconds on the clock -- after Malik Monk had flushed a game-tying 3-pointer over his fingertips with 7.2 seconds to play -- and established a new career high (17 points) for the second time in 48 hours, while North Carolina advanced to the Final Four a year after Villanova’s Kris Jenkins shattered its dreams in the title game.
Yeah, the Tar Heels are back in the national semifinals.
But ... how?
“I just shot it, and luckily it went in,” said Maye, who scored a previous career high of 16 points against Butler in the Sweet 16. “It was a great feeling. I thank my teammates so much and my coach for putting me in that situation. Just very blessed to have this opportunity.”
Yes, North Carolina secured a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday and a favorable path back to the Final Four -- the team’s motivation for the 2016-17 season. Yes, many expected the Tar Heels to reach the last stage in Glendale, Arizona.
But who knew it’d be this hard?
Before the game started on Sunday, a Memphis police officer guiding their coach bus downtown crashed his motorcycle as he tried to stop traffic. He did not suffer serious injuries but the program’s superstitious supporters on social media asked aloud if the incident portended doom.
Then, Joel Berry II suffered a sprained ankle in the first half. After the game, Roy Williams revealed Berry had sprained the other ankle in Saturday’s practice. “He’s a tough little nut,” Williams said after the game. “He’s out there with both feet not feeling real good.”
Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson had each picked up two fouls before the break. And during the second half, the Tar Heels lost their five-point halftime edge after Bam Adebayo, Monk and De'Aaron Fox returned to their normal roles following reduced minutes in the first half due to foul trouble.
With nearly five minutes to play, UNC's plan to avenge last season’s loss in the national title game centered on the team’s response to its five-point deficit, 64-59, after a timeout.
“At the timeout, I didn't like the look on their face, so I started yelling at them, but I was trying to yell positive messages,” Williams said.
A Pinson runner and a Justin Jackson floater off a spin kicked off a late rally -- with the help of a suppressive zone -- that led North Carolina into a familiar scare.
The Tar Heels had launched a similar comeback in a second-round win over Arkansas. But their 17-7 run against Villanova in last season’s title game preceded the dagger by Jenkins at the buzzer.
Plus, a few months ago, Monk hit a 3-pointer from the corner to seal Kentucky’s 103-100 win over North Carolina in a Las Vegas showdown in a similar scenario, albeit without the same stakes.
Over the past year, the Tar Heels had been blessed by miracles and cursed by them, too.
On Saturday, however, Monk pump-faked against Maye and tossed a game-tying 3-pointer into the rim at FedEx Forum before Maye maneuvered through the frenzy and streaked down the floor, where Pinson found him on the left wing for the game-winner.
After the game, Berry stood in a circle of cameras and touted his team’s toughness. Kennedy Meeks, with the net around his neck, stared into the nosebleeds and smiled. Williams, all giggly and happy, marveled from the edge of the celebration.
“It feels great,” Meeks said. “We put ourselves in the right position to take it and move forward, and I feel like the seniors did a great job leading this team this whole year. And we’re not done yet. We gotta go next week and finish out the rest of the business. ... No matter how we did it, we did it and we got it done.”
The conclusion to the 2015-16 season fed the team’s mission in the offseason. And the way the Tar Heels lost mattered.
Last year, Marcus Paige hit a game-tying shot with six seconds to play in the title game. Then, Jenkins happened.
“You know, last year was a heartbreaker to say the least,” Williams said. “And to have someone like Marcus make that kind of shot ... I even told Michael Jordan after the game, I said, ‘If we'd have gotten it into overtime, your shot to beat Georgetown would not have been the most famous shot in basketball history at North Carolina any longer.’”
To Berry, Maye’s shot on Sunday not only helped the Tar Heels advance to another opportunity to win the national title, but it also answered a question about this program.
“Every time we come into each and every season, that’s the big question: Are we tough enough?” Berry said. “To be able to win the last two games like we did, that just goes to show the toughness and the experience we have. Like [assistant coach Steve Robinson] said, there’s gonna be stressful moments in the game but we’ve gotta just come together [and] fight through it.”
They fought through it.
And now they’re back in the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona, where they’ll answer questions about the miracle shot in Memphis, and not just the one that ended their season in Houston a year ago.