CHAPEL HILL — One by one, the pieces to the puzzle are all starting to fit into place for the North Carolina basketball team. First there was Joel Berry’s leadership and Justin Jackson’s newfound aggressiveness. Then came the emergence of Kenny Williams’ perimeter jumper and within the last week, the injection of energy that came with the return of sixth man Theo Pinson. Now you can add the consistency of Isaiah Hicks to the mix. After an up-and-down start to the season, mostly because of his penchant for getting into foul trouble, the 6-foot-9 senior has finally hit his stride by scoring at least 16 points in each of his last three games — the first time in his career he’s done that. He put together his best all-around performance of the year Monday by slicing up Syracuse’s matchup zone for 20 points on 8 of 13 shooting, to go along with eight rebounds in a career-high tying 30 minutes as the ninth-ranked Tar Heels cruised to an 85-68 squeezing of the Orange at the Smith Center. The victory was the 800th of coach Roy Williams’ Hall of Fame career. “It’s just me trying to be aggressive,” Hicks said of his recent surge, which started with a 16-point, five-rebound effort at Wake Forest last Wednesday, followed by a 22-point, seven-rebound contribution in Saturday’s win against Florida State. “I’m trying to attack, to use my body to my advantage, get to the rim, get to the free throw line and just try to make everybody be aware.” While no one has been happier to see the production UNC has been getting of late from last year’s ACC Sixth Man of the Year than his coach, Roy Williams said he’s at a loss to explain the reason for Hicks’ sudden resurgence. “I don’t know and I’m not going to ask,” Williams said. “I don’t want to screw it up.” Fellow big man Kennedy Meeks, who had a big game himself Monday with 15 points and 12 rebounds, said he’s noticed something different about Hicks lately — and not just during the games. “I think his preparation has been a little different,” Meeks said. “I think he’s more prepared for the games. He’s a lot more focused. We have to read the scouting reports off to coach and he’s a lot more fluent with them. I think he has a better understanding of where he needs to be on the court.” He knew exactly where to go against a Syracuse defense that’s traditionally tough to get the ball inside against. Finding the dead spot in the zone on the high post, he first peppered the Orange with midrange jumpers. Once the defense adjusted and began playing him tighter, he put the ball on the floor and took it to the basket. He also scored on a pair of offensive rebounds to help the Tar Heels shoot a blistering 56.7 percent in the second half. And he did it all without committing a single foul — only the second time all season and third in the last two years that’s happened. “They just told me that and I was surprised,” Hicks said. Another surprise is the ease with which the Tar Heels (17-3, 5-1 ACC) got the ball inside against the Orange (11-8, 3-3). Big men Hicks, Meeks and Luke Maye combined to score 43 of their team’s 85 points. They also helped their team outrebound Syracuse by a whopping 44-24 margin that included 20 second-chance points. Although perimeter players Justin Jackson and Joel Berry added 19 and 10 points respectively, they did it while combining to make just four of their 11 3-point attempts between them. UNC went 7 of 24 from beyond the arc as a team. “Our perimeter guys haven’t shot a great percentage against Syracuse,” Williams said. “Last year we beat them three times, but it was our big guys. We try to attack (the zone) from the inside first. You can get lulled into shooting so many 3-point shots and you never get to the free throw line. These last four times our big guys have done a really nice job.” Orange coach Jim Boeheim was duly impressed. “I think they’re a tremendous basketball team,” he said. “They have tremendous experience and size. They’re as good as anybody.” Especially now that most of their pieces are finally falling into place.
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