PHOENIX — Isaiah Hicks went up for what appeared to be an uncontested dunk in the opening minute of North Carolina’s national semifinal game against Oregon on Saturday.
But before he could get the ball to the rim, it was unceremoniously swatted away by the Ducks’ Jordan Bell. Hicks hasn’t been at his best during the Tar Heels’ NCAA tournament run and whatever remained of his waning confidence came crashing to the floor along with that spectacular blocked shot.
The 6-foot-9 senior never recovered, missing a layup moments later on his way to a 1 for 12 shooting performance.
“I really thought he’d have a good game,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “The first shot was blocked. The second one he was sort of wide open and missed that. Then he tried to rush everything a little bit and it sort of snowballed on him.”
Hicks was so upset about his lack of production that he spent the entire postgame media session out of sight to avoid talking about it.
The only saving grace to his forgettable 20 minutes against the Ducks is that his Tar Heels pulled out a 77-76 victory, providing him with an opportunity to make amends in the season’s most important game — Monday’s national championship showdown against Gonzaga at University of Phoenix Stadium.
It’s an opportunity that fits right in with his team’s theme of redemption as it seeks to bring home the title that barely eluded it a year ago in Houston.
“Mentally, it’s just ‘next play,'” Hicks said Sunday at a pre-championship game media availability. “I wouldn’t say I’m very frustrated or anything, because I feel like I’m out there trying.
“When you try and it doesn’t go well, you just keep trying. It’s all about what Coach says, that if you’re a great player, you have to lose yourself in the game. When shots aren’t falling, all I can do it try.”
Effort has never been a problem for Hicks, a traditionally streaky player who averages 12.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game while shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor this season.
Usually his troubles begin and end with his penchant for picking up fouls. Hicks has been saddled with four or more fouls 15 times in 37 games this season. He’s fouled out of five, including UNC’s South Region semifinal win against Butler in Memphis last week.
That hasn’t been the case in the last two games, though.
Hicks failed to pull down a single rebound in the region final against Kentucky and was so ineffective on both ends of the court that Williams pulled him in favor of Luke Maye — who went on to score a career-high 17 points and score the dramatic game-winning basket with 0.3 seconds remaining.
He followed that up with Saturday’s clunker in which he was on the court for just seven minutes in the second half. Despite those struggles, Williams said he hasn’t lost faith in his starting power forward. That’s why he plans to keep Hicks in the lineup as usual when the Tar Heels (32-7) tip off against the Bulldogs (37-1) at around 9 p.m. on Monday.
“It’s a tough time for him as an individual,” Williams said. “I keep trying to tell him I believe in him, I trust him. I’ve said many times that I’m not the smartest, but I’m not the dumbest guy. So if I keep putting you out there I must have confidence in you than you have in yourself. So hopefully things will change Monday night.”
Teammate Kennedy Meeks is confident that will happen, especially since Gonzaga’s interior defense will likely be focused on him after his 25-point, 14-rebound performance against Oregon.
Like Williams on Saturday, he’s convinced his friend and frontcourt mate is primed for a breakout performance. “It won’t keep him down,” Meeks said of Meeks’ recent struggles.
“He’ll go out like everything’s fine.” As far as Hicks is concerned, everything already is fine. “For me inside, I feel like I’m normal,” he said. “Outside might look different, but I really can’t say it enough.”