Maye helps No. 9 UNC beat Northern Iowa 86-69 in opener
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Luke Maye knocked down outside jumpers, hit the glass and scored inside — even throwing in a nifty spin move on a post bucket — for the best scoring performance of his career.
Ninth-ranked North Carolina needs this version of Maye, too.
The 6-foot-8 junior had 26 points and 10 rebounds to help the Tar Heels beat Northern Iowa 86-69 in Friday night’s season opener, a fast start for a one-time reserve now thrust into a leading role for the reigning national champions.
“Whether I score 26 or whether I score two, it’s not going to make a difference to me,” Maye said. “I just want to go out there and play my best and help my team do the best we can.”
Big men Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley Jr. are gone from last year’s title winner, leaving behind Maye and an inexperienced crop of big men.
Maye has already proven he can handle the biggest of moments, with his last-second jumper to beat Kentucky in the NCAA Elite Eight standing as the biggest moment of last year’s tournament. Now he needs to prove he can do it more consistently in a minutes-rich and every-night role.
“When Luke was torching us in every practice ... I knew at some point he was going to explode,” senior Theo Pinson said. “And I told people before this season started: ‘Luke Maye is going to shock everybody.’”
Maye made 11 of 16 shots, including two 3-pointers, in 28 minutes.
“He’s quick to shoot it and he’s got no fear,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said, adding: “Tonight we had a couple where we didn’t give him much space ... and he made 3s.”
Freshman Garrison Brooks added 14 points for the Tar Heels, who didn’t have Final Four Most Outstanding Player Joel Berry II and Pittsburgh graduate transfer Cameron Johnson due to injuries.
Regardless, the Tar Heels shot 50 percent and blew open a 14-point halftime lead to as many as 31 points late.
Spencer Haldeman had 15 points to lead Northern Iowa, which had upset the top-ranked Tar Heels at home in November 2015. But the Panthers never came close to duplicating that magic.
Northern Iowa: The Panthers are picked to finish second in the Missouri Valley Conference, but this game just got away from them. With top big man Bennett Koch getting in early foul trouble, Northern Iowa relied on the 3-point shot and made 13 of 28 — though it got nothing inside the arc and only got to the foul line nine times through the first 36 minutes before getting there several times late in a blowout.
UNC: The Tar Heels were down two likely starters, so there were several storylines beyond Maye. Most notably, freshman Jalek Felton started at the point with Berry out, while Seventh Woods (nine points) had some good moments. Brooks also started alongside Maye up front while fellow rookie big man Sterling Manley had nine points and eight rebounds.
“It was great to see we could come out there and put it together tonight,” said junior guard Kenny Williams III, who had 10 points, five assists and three steals.
BEEN A WHILE
Maye’s layup with 14:47 left in the opening half marked his first basket since the winner against Kentucky on March 26. He had missed all four of his shots in the Final Four against Oregon and Gonzaga.
Northern Iowa’s Isaiah Brown made just 9 of 41 3s (22 percent) as a freshman, but hit 3 of 6 Friday and finished with 13 points against UNC.
“He worked hard over the summer, but the last month he’s put in a lot of time,” Jacobson said. “And you can see it.”
Berry, who is recovering from a broken bone in his right hand, warmed up with the team during shootaround. Johnson has a sprained neck, though coach Roy Williams said Johnson was improving daily and didn’t sound concerned about the injury’s severity.
Northern Iowa: The Panthers host Alcorn State on Monday.
UNC: The Tar Heels host Bucknell on Wednesday.
This story corrects that Northern Iowa got to the foul line nine times through the first 36 minutes, not for the entire game.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap