Hicks bounces back to help Tar Heels to national title win

After struggling through most of the NCAA tournament, Isaiah Hicks comes up huge to give Heels sixth national championship

Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports
UNC's Isaiah Hicks drives to the rim for his key basket late in Monday's national championship victory against Gonzaga

PHOENIX — Isaiah Hicks had one of the worst games a college basketball player could imagine on Saturday when he made just one of his 12 field goal attempts in North Carolina’s national semifinal victory against Oregon.The only redeeming factor of an otherwise forgettable performance is that he still had another game left in which to redeem himself. It took some time for that to happen. He missed his first three shots in Monday’s national championship matchup with Gonzaga.But the senior forward finally heated up by making five of his last seven from the floor, including perhaps the biggest basket of the season and his career to help the Tar Heels cut down the nets at University of Phoenix Stadium with a 71-65 victory.”Isaiah, my boy has been struggling like a dog but tonight he looked like a greyhound there a couple of times at the end,” coach Roy Williams said. “I told him [Monday] morning, your last high school game you won the state championship and he had like 34 points and 30 rebounds. I told him I would take that tonight.”He didn’t really give that to us, but he was big for us and made a couple of big, big baskets down the stretch.”The first came just before halftime and sparked a surge that saw UNC cut a seven-point deficit down to three at the break. Then with six and a half minutes remaining, Hicks beat the shot-clock buzzer with a short jumper from the left baseline to put the Tar Heels ahead by four.As important as those shots were, they paled in comparison to the one he made with UNC clinging to a 66-65 lead with 25.3 seconds left on the clock.It came just after teammate Kennedy Meeks saved a possession by tying up a Gonzaga player for a loose ball on the floor. Starting near the free throw line, Hicks put a move on the Bulldogs’ Johnathan Williams, drove to the rim and scored on a tough, off-balance one-hander that put his own struggles behind him and set the stage for a joyous celebration to come.”I felt like I just willed my way to the rim,” Hicks said, wearing one of the nets he’d just help cut down like a triumphant necklace. “And I just made it.”Hicks finished with 13 points and nine rebounds, his most since the regular season finale against Duke eight games ago, to go along with two blocks, a assist and a steal.It was the kind of stat line few could have predicted based on his dismal stat line against Oregon — but teammate Kennedy Meeks did.”I told y’all yesterday that he was going to have a big game,” Meeks said. “I’m not surprised at all. I knew he would come around sooner or later and he hit one of the biggest shots of the game. I feel like he deserves it. I feel like he doesn’t get some of the credit for how good he is and how good he is for this team.”Hicks finished the season averaging 11.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. But after scoring 17 points in the opening round, his numbers sagged to just 6.0 points and 2.8 boards in the NCAA Tournament. He fouled out against Butler in the Sweet 16 and failed to get a single rebound in the Tar Heels’ South Region final against Kentucky — a game that saw him get benched in favor of eventual hero Luke Maye.He said the confidence his teammates and coaches showed in him throughout his career, but particularly in the 24 hours between games in Phoenix, went a long way toward bringing about his championship contribution.”Everybody still had faith in me,” he said. “Everyone was always encouraging me. I felt like I was always trying. I feel like when you try, good things are eventually going to happen.”His confidence rose so high that even after picking up his fourth foul with just over three minutes remaining, the usually foul-prone Tar Heel convinced Williams to keep him on the floor.”I looked at Coach and gave him a thumbs up like, I’m good,” Hicks said. “Just leave me in. … I felt like I was going to do the right thing. I felt like I didn’t want to come out. I wasn’t going to miss this chance with these guys. I felt like when I was out there, I was doing everything I can.”It was the kind of effort that made his Hall of Fame coach proud, especially since it was Hicks that blamed himself for allowing Villanova’s Kris Jenkins to hit the buzzer-beating 3-pointer that cost UNC the national title a year ago.”At the end, when you’re watching your kids jump around and the excitement, the thrill they have,” Williams explained, “there’s no better feeling in the world as a coach.”