CHAPEL HILL — In the final home game of his career, North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks had the sort of game he expected to put up many times during his senior year.
Repeated foul trouble and a left hamstring injury have kept that from happening often enough this season.
He would not be denied on Saturday night, though, while becoming the 76th Tar Heel to reach 1,000 career points.
After missing the loss at Duke, he collected 21 points and a season-high nine rebounds to help the No. 5 Tar Heels (26–6, 14–4 ACC) get revenge with a 90–83 victory over the No. 17 Blue Devils (23–8, 11–7) and win the outright regular-season ACC title by two games.
“It’s a big reliever,” Hicks said. He was 7 of 9 from the floor after making only four field goals in the previous three games. “If feels like I got that heavy weight off my back. I’m finally out of that
so-called funk. Just glad to be playing the way I used to play.”
In only the eighth time in 31 games this season with fewer than three fouls, he provided an inside element that Carolina didn’t have in Durham. It was his fourth 20-point-plus game of the season and sixth of his career but first since scoring 20 Jan. 20 against Syracuse.
“It means a lot,” said Hicks, who had a total of 20 points in the previous four games. “That’s a tremendous mental booster, I would say: Going into the tournaments and seeing what I’m capable of if I can actually stay in the game and not watching the game from the bench. Last game, y’all saw how bad my teammates get at me for stupid fouls like that. I realize that I have to stay in the game.”
He took a nice bounce pass when Justin Jackson drove the lane with 5:22 left and converted a 3-point play to give UNC a 77–71, and he put the game away by hitting two free throws with 10.1 seconds left to shove the lead back to seven points.
Those were some of the memorable moments. And then there was the forgettable one when he missed a two-handed dunk attempt in the second half, which he blamed on jumping too high. But fellow senior Kennedy Meeks only saw positives.
“He just brought the energy, he brought the effort, he brought the tenacity,” Meeks said. “I think he’s definitely back. This was a great opportunity for him to have this big game. It will give him a lot of confidence for the tournament.”
Coach Roy Williams didn’t want to use Hicks’ absence during the Tar Heels’ loss at Duke as an excuse, but he recognized that his team is different with his inside presence.
“We’re a better team when Isaiah is playing and playing well,” said Williams, who seems to have a knack for coming up with the right words to turn around a player who has been struggling. After a talk with Kenny Williams when he was struggling, the guard had a big game against Notre Dame. He tried to drive home another point in a discussion with Hicks late last week.
Hicks had been having trouble even staying on the court because of foul trouble. He was also worried about the nagging left hamstring that kept him out of the first game against Duke and had slowed him since then.
“Just stuff has really been on my mind and I haven’t really been really as focused as I should have been,” said Hicks, who was injured in practice the day before the game in Durham. “That’s when Coach pulled me aside and talked to me about, ‘just play like Isaiah and don’t worry about anything else.’
“He was telling me not to worry about the injury and not to worry about anything else when you’re in the game. I guess I was trying to talk myself into like, ‘I’m not,’ but it still was on my mind,” Hicks said. “A lot of stuff that I really shouldn’t have been thinking about. I wasn’t that hurt to be thinking about it in the first place. If I’m out there on the court, that’s what I need to focus on: playing.”
Hicks said his left leg started feeling the best it has been since suffering that injury the day before the first Duke game in practice.
It was not only the right mindset that made the difference but the right execution. He burned Duke with two quick steps to the basket a couple of times and he seemed to always take advantage when he had a favorable matchup. Many times when the Blue Devils switched, Luke Kennard guarded him.
“When I set screens for Joel, Justin, you know any perimeter player switches, they got a big and I got a little, so we have to take advantage of it,” Hicks said. “If I didn’t get it, I got out of the way and they have a bigger guy on them. Sometimes switching helps, but then again, it puts people in a bad situation, too.”
Hicks faced challenges on the other end having to guard the quicker and shorter Jason Tatum. He didn’t always have success as the freshman finished with 13 points.
“I screamed at him one time because Jason Tatum takes one dribble and drives in and lays it up,” Roy Williams said. “It’s a hard matchup, but he’s good enough to do it. He was big for us tonight. That area of the court was big for us tonight.”
Hicks credited many duels in practice with Luke Maye with giving him the experience to do well in that sort of matchup. He said that there were many days in practice when Maye’s quickness made him look bad.
“It was just me just knowing that he’s a perimeter player, staying down on the floor and really playing his drive,” Hicks said. “He gets to the basket well, it’s just me having to realize don’t foul him and also move my feet.”
Not fouling, in general, continues to be huge for Hicks, and it could have been a return of those woes when he picked up his second foul wiht 8:46 left in the first half if he let it.
“I didn’t even worry about it,” Hicks said. “I looked at coaches and they were just like, ‘just let it go,’ and that’s what I did.”
If those foul woes don’t come back, it’s clear that Hicks feels that he’s back and ready to be consistent for the Tar Heels’ March run.