Nick Mayo’s college basketball career was at a crossroads of sorts last spring after his coach at Eastern Kentucky, Dan McHale, was fired.
The former Messalonskee of Oakland standout, a three-time All-Ohio Valley Conference first-team forward, had options. Among them were transferring to a higher-level NCAA Division I program or even declaring for the National Basketball Association draft and pursuing a pro career.
Transferring would have required Mayo to sit out a year under NCAA rules and, with one year of eligibility remaining, the wait wasn’t worth it.
Given Mayo’s track record at Eastern Kentucky — the 6-foot-9 senior forward recently became the school’s career scoring leader — pro opportunities in the NBA or internationally likely will be waiting.
So after he and his family met new Colonels’ head coach A.W. Hamilton, Mayo opted to stay in the Bluegrass State for his final year. So far, it has been a productive decision.
Mayo ranks among the top 10 in Division I in both scoring (23.9 points per game) and free-throw attempts (92) for Eastern Kentucky, which is 6-6 after Saturday’s 85-84 overtime loss at Duquesne.
The 2015 Gatorade Maine player of the year and Bangor Daily News All-Maine first-team choice also is averaging 8.9 rebounds, 1.9 blocked shots and 1.3 steals while shooting 89 percent from the free-throw line.
“It’s a lot different this year,” Mayo said. “We play really hard, we press the whole game. That’s the biggest difference. It’s a really fast style of play which I enjoy, which we all enjoy.”
How fast? Eastern Kentucky ranks third in Division I with 83.0 possessions per game and fourth in lowest time per possession at 13.9 seconds.
“One of the things we talked about with Nick was getting him in the best shape of his life, so he stayed on campus all summer and put in the work on the court and in the weight room and the results have been tremendous,” Hamilton said.
Mayo returned last fall at 250 pounds, up from 217 at the end of the 2017-2018 campaign, and his cardiovascular efforts have enabled him to average 32.3 minutes per game.
“Spending the whole summer down here with the coaching staff and the guys getting stronger in the weight room and working on my conditioning was a big factor,” Mayo said.
Mayo’s final season already has produced a highlight reel of special moments, including a 40-point, 12-rebound performance during a come-from-behind victory at Chattanooga on Nov. 10 and two game-winning shots within a week.
Here it is! The Nick Mayo buzzer beater to beat Northern Kentucky!What a McBrayer moment!#GoBigE #CompeteFor40
Posted by EKU Colonels on Saturday, December 8, 2018
His buzzer-beater to cap off a 70-69 victory at High Point on Dec. 1 was a 3-pointer from the left of the key, and on Dec. 8 his contested shot from the right baseline as time expired beat Northern Kentucky 76-74.
The High Point shot, in particular, produced a raucous on-court celebration where fans momentarily lost sight of Mayo under a pile of teammates.
"To Mayo … at the buzzer … for the win!"Here it is! Nick Mayo's glorious buzzer beater, complete with Greg Stotelmyer's radio call.Share to get Nick on SportsCenter's #SCTop10!
Posted by EKU Colonels on Saturday, December 1, 2018
I like watching the video because the reaction was really special, a cool moment,” Mayo said.
“When you’re a kid playing out in the yard you always want to hit that game-winner.”
Mayo eclipsed Eastern Kentucky’s career scoring record held by Matt Witt (1,832 points, 2002-2006) during a Dec. 15 game at Xavier. He did so that on a 3-pointer with 10:58 left in the first half.
Television cameras panned high into the arena’s stands where Mayo’s parents, Scott and Jenn, were among those celebrating.
“It’s something to be proud about and something my family is very proud of, but at the same time I’m just focused on winning and leading this team to the OVC tourney and then hopefully past there,” Mayo said. “It probably will mean more to me later in my life when I can reminisce and think about it.”
Mayo finished that game with 25 points and now has 1,869.
“He’s going to set the bar so high here at [Eastern Kentucky] that I’d be shocked if anyone will come close to the scoring record he’s setting,” Hamilton said.
Mayo also holds the school record for blocked shots (147 and counting) during a career in which he has started in all of his team’s 104 contests since arriving on campus in the fall of 2015.
He has averaged 33 minutes per game over that span as well as 17.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.4 blocked shots while shooting 52.8 percent from the field, 42.1 percent from the 3-point arc and 81.8 percent from the free-throw line.
Mayo has amassed those statistics while typically being the focus of opposing defenses.
“I welcome the double-team because that means another player on my team is open,” Mayo said. “It’s something I’m used to now so I can make plays out of it, but it’s something I’ve got to keep working against.”
Eastern Kentucky has adapted its offense to get Mayo more open looks, with pace a big part of that formula.
“We have to get out in transition to get him to different spots on the floor where he can get open and maneuver fast, because if you let the defense get set they’ll just load up on him and then he’s easier to guard,” Hamilton said
Hamilton, who was an assistant coach at North Carolina State for a year before getting the Eastern Kentucky post, previously served as head coach for the prep team at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia. There, the players he coached included current Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier.
He believes Mayo has all the tools to take a similar step.
“Nick is a unique player, a once-in-a-lifetime guy,” Hamilton said. “I’ve had 11 former players make it to the NBA, but I’ve never had a player like Nick Mayo. I truly believe he can play at the highest level.”
Mayo, who is on schedule to graduate next spring, has NBA ambitions, but until he gets there it will be business as usual on the court.
“I have goals, obviously,” he said, “and some of those goals are about the future, so right now I’m just putting in as much work as I can to make it possible.”