GREENVILLE, S.C. — It had been a pretty quiet game for Isaiah Hicks, but he wasn’t about to let his North Carolina career end quietly.
The senior from Oxford scored six of his nine points in the last 2:16, beginning with a thunderous dunk off of a Justin Jackson pass, to help the No. 1 seed Tar Heels escape with a 72–65 over Arkansas on Sunday night.
Hicks’ two free throws with 1:44 left gave the Tar Heels the lead for good. His two free throws with 10 seconds left put the game away after he got a huge rebound off of a potential game-tying 3-point attempt by the Razorbacks, who finished 26–10.
Now the Tar Heels (29–7) face Butler on Friday in the 35th regional-semifinal appearance in program history. For a time, Hicks admitted that he was wondering if Sunday’s game might be his last for Carolina.
“I was thinking about that five minutes till when they came back,” said Hicks, who went scoreless in the first half. “You know, this can’t be my last game. Me, Kennedy [Meeks] and Nate [Britt] looked at each other and said this isn’t it. We have to do something. I would say I was struggling tonight, but after that I guess we had got the momentum, everything was picking up defensively and we just didn’t want to it to be it.”
And do something he did, getting a little revenge after the Razorbacks’ Moses Kingsley swatted away his shot a minute earlier. Assistant Coach C.B. McGrath called the play and Coach Roy Williams relayed it to the team during a time out to be run next time UNC had a secondary break.
“The way that they were playing ball screens, the guy would always hedge hard, so whenever Isaiah came and his guy jumped out, [Hicks] just slipped to the basket,” Jackson said. “It’s a play we run all the time in practice and I hit him and he went aggressive to the basket. I just tried to get it to him and let him make the play.”
It was a huge bucket when North Carolina needed it, but it was even more satisfying for Hicks considering he dunked on Kingsley.
“That’s a little play you’ve got to read,” Hicks said. “Your man is coming out and I just slip it. He’s a known shot blocker, so it’s good to dunk on a shot blocker.”
It seemed to give the Tar Heels a big spark as they finished the game on a 12–0 run after trailing 65–60 after Jaylen Barford’s layup with 3:28 left.
“All right, let’s go, we need to get some more stops,” Hicks said of the team’s mentality after the dunk. “After that, everybody was screaming and jumping and I feel like that was sort of the game-changer right there.”
Theo Pinson said that the nature of the game and the way it was called had something to do with Hicks’ inability to get anything going offensively for most of the game.
“Things weren’t going his way, it was a physical game,” Pinson said. “Refs weren’t really calling anything, but they were doing it good for both teams. They let a lot of stuff go. I was just really proud of him.”
UNC played lock-down defense for the first 15 minutes of the first half and the last six minutes of the game. In between, the intensity to defend well wasn’t there and the game looked like it was slipping away.
“We let down on defense a little bit, but we picked things up and good things happen,” Hicks said. “I just felt like we were really getting into them defensively. They hit some crazy shots. We thought we were playing good D but we really had to pick it up.
“We just have to stay like that all 40 minutes,” Hicks said of the level needed defensively. “We started off like that and let up and they took advantage. Moving forward, we can’t have that.”
Hicks came into the game shooting 82 percent from the free-throw line, but he never has hit any bigger ones than he hit Sunday night.
“I just think about the process, not make or miss. That’s all it is,” said Hicks, who made 5 of 6 free-throw attempts for the game and added seven rebounds and four assists.”
When Hicks powered in that dunk, it ended a stretch when Carolina seemed too many times to settle for a 3-point attempt rather than getting it inside. That wasn’t working well since the Tar Heels were only 5 of 17 from 3-point range, all hit by Jackson and Joel Berry II.
“We were just getting out of what we did that was being successful in the first half,” Hicks said. “We started taking bad shots, letting up on defense and they just took advantage of it. That last 3 minutes, we finally just picked it right up.
“As post players, we really weren’t posting low. We were just out there doing our thing,” Hicks said. “I would say that was a little stretch where nothing good happened. Taking bad shots. Weren’t really moving our offense.”
Thanks to the timely play of Hicks in the final minutes, the Tar Heels are moving on.