CHAPEL HILL — When Isaiah Hicks took entry passes Monday night, he might has well have been snatching batons during track-and-field relays because of what happened next.
Syracuse saw an explosive Hicks who was in attack mode, immediately making either a quick move to the basket, firing up a short jump shot or unloading a touch pass.
The senior center scored 20 points as he and fellow post man Kennedy Meeks found the seams of the Orange’s 2–3 zone — which hasn’t been as torrid as past years — in No. 9 North Carolina’s 85–68 victory.
It was somehow fitting that Coach Roy Williams, who loves to emphasize the inside game, got plenty of punch from it in his 800th career head-coaching victory.
“We try to really attack you from the inside first,” he said. “You can get lulled into shooting so many 3-point shots and never get to the free throw line.”
Coming off a career-high-tying 22-point effort while still battling foul trouble against Florida State, he tied his career high by playing 30 minutes (he also did it against Wisconsin earlier this season). Not so coincidentally, he didn’t get called for a foul for only the second time this season (in the other, he scored 22 points against Chaminade).
Hicks has committed more than three fouls in eight of 20 games this season and has been called for fewer than three only five times. But, for at least one night, he fought off the foul demons.
“I was surprised,” Hicks said of his reaction when told after the game that he had no fouls. “Sometimes if I think about it, I go out and do something stupid and they start adding up. I have to think about it sometimes. It just plays out.”
What played out against Syracuse at times was Hicks taking a pass in the middle of the zone in front of the free throw line and making something happen. Syracuse seemed to adjust and collapse on him more in the second half, but he still netted eight second-half points.
“To hurt the zone, you really attack that one guy in the middle,” said Hicks, who many times took that role near the heart of the Syracuse zone that was so productive last season for Brice Johnson. “It’s like a one-on-one situation, and that’s what it was. When they have to play you, that messes them up. From our previous years, our success was attacking the middle part. Make that guy play you.”
It is the first time Hicks has scored at least 16 points in three consecutive games in his career, and the first time he’s scored 20 or more points in consecutive games. He added eight rebounds, an assist and a steal.
“Whenever you get the ball inside on a zone like that, everybody’s extended so whenever he was aggressive and able to get to the ball to the basket that helps us that much more,” Justin Jackson, who scored 19 points, said of Hicks. “He’s just looking to be more aggressive and whenever he does that, he helps our team, especially against a zone like that.”
The biggest indication that Hicks is being more aggressive the past two games is the number of times he is drawing fouls.
“Just trying to get the rim, get to the free-throw line. Just try to make everybody be aware,” Hicks said.
Before the Florida State game, he attempted only 25 free throws in his previous nine games. In the last two games, he’s attempted 24 free throws, and he’s becoming a reliable force there since he made 22 of them.
“I think all of our big guys did a good job of being strong with the ball when they caught it on the inside, whether it was passing or taking the shot,” said Joel Berry II, who scored 10 points. “Isaiah specifically did a great job of being able to attack and know the difference and when to pull up for the shot.”
Meeks also was as aggressive as he has ever been, finishing with 15 points and 12 rebounds while hustling all over the court. Combining that with Hicks’ play doomed the Syracuse zone.
In only 14 minutes against Syracuse, Theo Pinson continued to be a productive playmaker. He led the Tar Heels with five assists, two that produced Hicks dunks.
Williams wasn’t about to try to explain the better play of late from Hicks, who led UNC in scoring for the third time this season and the fifth time in his career.
“I don’t know and I’m not going to ask. I don’t want to screw it up,” Williams said. “Isaiah has had some big moments for us.”
Hicks obviously will have many more chances for those moments if he can stay out of foul trouble consistently. When asked if he had solved his foul habit, he knocked on the table before answering in hopes that he doesn’t jinx his chances of having more nights like Monday.
“I would say it’s just me just trying to do the right stuff and slide my feet, stay on the ground and not worry about shot fakes,” Hicks said. “Just actually play the principles rather than doing something stupid. I think Coach liked that more rather than me needing to come out and sit and wait because of foul trouble. I think that’s the biggest thing, me trying to limit the fouls.”
He hopes to turn that problem onto his opponents.
“Trying not be as passive as I have in the past, being more aggressive. Put pressure on the other team and try to get them in foul trouble,” said Hicks, who tied career highs with eight field goals and 13 field-goal attempts.
The breakout star that many expected Hicks to be entering this season has emerged in the last couple of games. If he continues to resist the temptation to reach on defense, it’s not a reach to expect a lot more big nights from him the rest of season.