GLENDALE, Ariz. — Isaiah Hicks’ recent struggles confounded both Coach Roy Williams and the senior from Oxford. Hicks kept saying he was trying. It just wasn’t working out for him.
Early in Monday night’s national-championship game, he looked confident and assertive even as he missed his first couple of shots. But when North Carolina needed him down the stretch, he made the huge plays the Tar Heels needed to put away their sixth national championship with a 71–65 victory over Gonzaga.
“Last year, I felt like it just set us up for this,” Hicks said. “We went through that and that made us stronger for this moment.”
The Tar Heels got redemption for the heartbreaking loss to Villanova a year earlier. But it was big-time redemption for Hicks. Redemption for his recent struggles and to go a long way toward erasing the memory of Kris Jenkins making a shot over Hicks’ outreached hands. It was never his fault because Jenkins wasn’t his man. But the memory lingered.
“Isaiah, my boy has been struggling like a dog, but tonight he looked like a greyhound there a couple of times at the end,” Williams said after earning his third national championship.
Hicks got emotional a couple of times during the postgame press conference as he tried to convince himself that what just happened really happened.
“I see Kennedy [Meeks] steal it, and I think I almost lost it,” Hicks said. “It’s just the way to go out as a senior, knowing this is my last college game no matter what. And, you know, it’s a complete 180 from last year. I feel like this is, you know, what we worked for. It’s finally here. It’s hard to describe it. It’s so surreal. And I had to pinch myself one time. Couldn’t believe it.”
As the final seconds ticked off, it was quite a contrast to the agonizing final seconds a year earlier.
“This time, you know, we was up,” Hicks said. “And Joel [Berry] was at the free-throw line. We knew at this moment we had it done. And that feeling, you know, is just something else.”
Even during Monday’s game, there were still moments where Hicks was trying but unsuccess while still getting reassurance from his teammates.
“We wanted him to be aggressive and he was tonight,” Theo Pinson said. “He was telling us during the game, ‘I’m trying’ and I understand the emotions like that. I was like, ‘I know you’re trying. Just keep playing, I know you are going to make a big play sooner or later.’ The dude stepped up big time tonight.”
After scoring 15 points in the last three games combined, he notched 13 points, including a twisting, floating, hanging-in-the-air driving bank shot after taking a high post pass that gave the Tar Heels a three-point lead with 26 seconds left.
“I thought Justin [Jackson] was about to shoot it, but he kind of picked the ball up,” Hicks said of that basket. “I didn’t care where I was, I think I posted up at the free-throw line and I just wanted the ball. I looked at the goal and looked at scoring. I just noticed that we needed one and I just willed my way to the rim and just made it. I felt like I had the ability to hang in the air. I just did it.”
Hicks said he knew that the moment he made the move, that Coach Williams was probably mad because he always says to post low. If so, he wasn’t mad for long.
Once the foul trouble piled up for the Zags’ big men, it was obvious that going inside was going to be more fruitful, and nobody took more advantage of that than Hicks. He made a nice driving basket with 13:14 left when Collins went to the bench with four fouls. He added a huge basket at the end of the shot clock with 6:23 left, as well as a follow shot with 5:03 left.
“Like I said the other day, I was trying,” said Hicks, who made only 1 of 12 shots against Oregon. “That’s all I could do is try and leave everything out there. And I feel like that’s what I did today. I just came out, being aggressive and good things happened when I kept being aggressive. Hard stuff and I still made it and just kept pushing.”
Hicks showed he’s learned to play smartly in foul trouble. He played the last 3:08 with four fouls but managed to avoid the foul that would have put a premature end to his career.
“It didn’t affect nothing for me,” Hicks said. “I know when I picked up my third, I looked at Coach and gave him a thumbs up, like, ‘I’m good. Just leave me in.’ I don’t know if people remember that.”
Williams quickly replied that, yes, he listened.
Thirty-five years after James Worthy declined to take the net after UNC won the regional title, saying that he wanted the net in New Orleans, Hicks similarly rejected the net in Memphis because he wanted one in Phoenix.
“It’s the best feeling,” Hicks said. “All the time from last year to this year, I never had a net. I told them I’m getting the national championship net. It was so surreal.”
Hicks knows how to finish careers with a flourish. In his last high school game in 2013, he led Oxford Webb to the state 3-A title. Monday, his big plays made sure he also ended his college career with a title.
“Told him this morning, your last high school game you won the state championship. And he had like 34 points, 30 rebounds. I told him I would take that tonight,” Williams said. “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.”
And, instead of wondering what might have been because of any struggles in the final game, Hicks went out in style and a national champion.