With just over a second left on the clock at Memphis’ FedEx Forum on Monday (NZT), University of North Carolina forward Luke Maye eyed up the hoop, steadied himself for a jump shot – and fired away.
With 0.3 seconds remaining, the ball dropped through the net, making the basketball-crazy hearts of North Carolina sing and those of Kentucky sink.
“It was a wild ending to a thrilling game,” the New York Times reported of the NCAA Tournament’s ‘Elite Eight’ Southern Regional Final; “a classic that the Tar Heels punctuated by snipping the nets in semi-disbelief”.
“Go ahead: call it a miracle,” Sports Illustrated gushed of North Carolina’s last second 75-73 college hoops victory, summoning the great hyperbolic traditions of American sports writing.
Only metres away from the drama, Kentucky player Tai Wynyard could do nothing but stare on in disbelief. The 19-year-old West Aucklander had done nothing to impact the match.
In fact, Wynyard – son of world champion woodchopper Jason – hadn’t been on the court for the University of Kentucky since they played Louisiana State back on February 7. His rookie year featured a lot of watching from the bench.
Days before Kentucky’s elimination, I headed into the Kentucky locker room beneath FedEx Forum to see what Wynyard – who signed with the school in late 2015 ahead of multiple other American scholarship offers – has made of life in college hoops.
“You’ve always got to be ready.”
“I’m back in the line-up right now, so I’m just waiting on my chance to get out there and show myself. It’s a lot of fun being in here with all these guys,” he says.
“You have to have your mind ready all the time. You don’t know how the game could go – someone could foul out or get injured, and I might have to play a lot of minutes. You just have to always be ready.”
It is an absolute media circus inside the locker room, with throngs of reporters and media managers outnumbering actual players and staff.
Media crowd star players De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo, asking questions laden with an expectant pressure foreign to Kiwi sports teams of this age group.
Days later, Fox and Adebayo – both just 19 – would be surrounded by the same reporters, in tears, after the last-second defeat. The next competitive game of basketball they – as well as guard Mailk Monk – will play in will likely come in the NBA.
Monk and Fox are both consensus top ten picks for June’s Draft, while Adebayo is expected to be picked up later in the first round.
Wynyard – a solid 2.08m lad who looks like he’s still learning to handle his big frame – has learned much from sharing a locker room with the NBA-bound players.
“They’re pretty good role models,” the former Breaker and NZ youth star says.
“Malik is a good one. He likes to model himself as a top player in every single way, and I try to follow that. Bam is another guy. He came from some bad roots, and his story is pretty incredible. Fox will be going, too.
“So, yeah, learning from these guys who will probably be playing in the league next year is pretty cool. It’s been a great opportunity.”
Life in the top ranks of college ball is merciless. Every year brings a new wave of star high school recruits. If you don’t get game time, your chances of getting to the NBA are pretty much nil.
Wynyard – the youngest ever Tall Black when he debuted as a 16-year-old in 2014 – hasn’t made a big mark in his debut year.
The teenager has averaged 3.6 minutes a game for the Wildcats, chalking up just 13 rebounds, 11 points, two blocks, a steal and an assist for the entire year.
NBA-bound players assemble those sort of stats in one night.
Famed Kentucky coach John Calipari has long maintained that the young Kiwi is a work in progress. Wynyard – a key member of the 2015 3-on-3 Under-18 world champions – believes he has improved.
“My rebounding has got a little bit better,” he says. “I have that Kiwi pride – fighting for those rebounds.
“That’s pretty much what rebounding is – going hard and applying the athleticism to get that rebound. Not many people have that. [Breakers veteran] Mika Vukona is a great example of that – he fights for every rebound and pushes himself so hard. That’s who you’ve got to be.
“My game has changed a lot.
“I’ve become more confident in myself, and my shooting ability. Everything is going to improve when you play against some of the greatest players in the world.”
Teammate Isaac Humphries – arguably Kentucky’s star player in their tight loss to North Carolina – agrees that the big Kiwi is on the right track.
“I think he’s come a long way since he’s been here, both on and off the court,” the 19-year-old Australian says.
“He has matured a lot, his game has lifted, he’s more aggressive – but confident and comfortable on the court. I think in general a lot of things have lifted for him.”
To succeed in college ball, Humphries says, players have to approach the hype and attention the right way.
“I don’t let any of this sort of stuff faze me,” the 19-year-old Cronulla native says.
“Sometimes you can get quite caught up in the hype of basketball in the USA, but the more experiences you have with it, the more comfortable you get. I think Tai is pretty used to it now.”
Wynyard says that playing in Kentucky’s legendary Rupp Arena – which can hold up to 24,000 fans and is regularly sold out – has prepared him for the attention a college hoops player can expect in the States.
“Honestly, [the NCAA tournament] is no different to every home game we have,” he says.
“We have like 24,000 people at our games, so having 16,000 or whatever fit in here is actually a little bit less. We are used to the hype, the craziness and the expectation of the fans.”
Wynyard has maintained regular contact with his parents (“FaceTime helps, eh”), who have offered continuing support and advice. He came home last December when his grandmother died – missing several games – and hosted his parents in late January.
His father Jason attended Kentucky’s January 31 game against Georgia, where, ironically enough, his son got his most minutes of the year (12).
“They just tell me to keep strong and keep fighting for yourself,” he says. “Keep pushing yourself, and keep ready because you never know when your opportunity can come by.”
While he is arguably at the most famed school in basketball – Kentucky has won the NCAA title eight times – Wynyard is but one of a New Zealand ‘golden generation’ in college hoops right now.
Fellow New Zealanders Matt Freeman (Oklahoma), Jack Salt (Virginia) and Sam Timmins (Washington) are currently in top tier schools, while Tai Webster just finished a massive season with Nebraska.
On the women’s side, Stella Beck (Saint Mary’s), Kalani Purcell (Brigham Young) and Kayla Manuirirangi (Tulane) are rising fast.
All are chasing the same dream that Steven Adams has achieved at the Oklahoma City Thunder. The big Kiwi launched his NBA career after a college season with the University of Pittsburgh in 2012/13.
“He’s a big role model to every Kiwi kid,” Wynyard says. “You want to model your game after him if you’re on the same pathway as him.”
Though Wynyard doesn’t quite appreciate it yet, there’s already a growing generation of Kiwi ballers looking up to him. Maybe not in the way they view Adams yet – but having a Kiwi in the limelight at Kentucky certainly registers.
“I’m not really there yet,” he says, laughing. “But it’s pretty cool to be looked on in that way. When I go home to play for my country, hopefully it’ll be the same thing.
“[In the mean time], you treat every game the same way. Be ready and get into it.”