by Turner Walston
Isaiah Hicks might have had a better night Saturday if he'd gotten off to a better start. The opportunity was there, certainly. Forty-five seconds into the game, Theo Pinson hauled in a defensive rebound, dribbled up court and whipped a bounce pass around two Oregon Ducks to a streaking Hicks. The senior caught the ball on the block, then took a dribble to gather himself. That dribble allowed Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Bell to recover. Hicks rose to dunk. Bell rejected Hicks' attempt off the backboard.
And so it went for Hicks. He would score a single field goal on the night. It came with just under three minutes to play in the first half. Nate Britt dribbled into the lane, drawing three defenders, including help from Bell. That left Hicks open. Bell and Kavell Bigby-Williams recovered only in time to get dunked on. Aside from that dunk, Hicks missed 11 shots and had but three rebounds, an assist, two turnovers and a steal.
It's been a rough go of late for the Oxford senior. Before he missed the game at Duke on February 9 with a strained hamstring, Hicks had scored in double figures in 18 of Carolina's 25 games to that point. Since then, he's done so in just five of 13 games. He was brilliant in a four-game stretch that began in the regular season finale against the Blue Devils, finding some kind of groove and scoring 21, 19, 19 and 17 points, respectively, into the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But in the Tar Heels' last two games, against Kentucky and Oregon, Hicks has scored just six total points.
On Sunday, Hicks said the dunk he had blocked early against Oregon hadn't affected him beyond that single moment. "I wasn't even thinking about that," he said. "After that happened, that wasn't even a thought in my head." And let's give him the benefit of the doubt, because his struggles didn't just begin there.
"Mentally, it's just, 'next play,'" Hicks said of his approach. "I wouldn't say I'm very frustrated or anything, because I feel like I'm out there just trying, and I feel like when you try and it doesn't go well, just keep trying."
Hicks will be tried –and tested– Monday night against Gonzaga in the national championship game. The Bulldogs boast a post rotation similar to the Tar Heels, with 6'9 Johnathan Wiliams and 7'1 Przemek Karnowski in the starting lineup and freshmen reserves Zach Collins at 7'0 and 6'10 Killian Tillie off the bench. They keep coming at you, presenting size the Tar Heels rarely saw in the ACC, perhaps only against Florida State and Louisville. These aren't the step-back, pick-and-pop, Dirk Nowitzki big men, but the back-to-the-basket, more traditional 1990s NBA center types. Meeks and Karnowski will be a match-up rarely seen in modern college basketball, and Carolina will need strong minutes from Luke Maye and Tony Bradley off the bench.
"All year long, we've had to send our big guys out on the court to play against all those screen and pop guys that want to shoot three-point shots, but also have the first option of going inside," Roy Williams said. "In that sense, it will be something we haven't done this year."
"It's like playing our team in practice," Hicks said of the Zags' size. "It's the same way, two bigs, and I feel like for us, me and Luke, that's kind of a good thing. We don't have to chase a perimeter player around, so it just depends on which team is dominant inside."
Isaiah Hicks himself will need to contribute to that. His struggles of late have led to the elevation of Maye's role, but neither played well Saturday. A repeat performance will not beget a shining moment for the Tar Heels.
Even when he's not scoring, Hicks can find ways to contribute. Defending without fouling to alter shots. Rebound. Set screens. "Coach always says, 'You're a great player, so just lose yourself in the game," Hicks said. "And when a shot's not falling, all I can do is try, and I've been trying, so I really can't be frustrated about that. If the ball's not going to go in, sometimes that happens."
Monday night is Isaiah Hicks' last game as a Tar Heel. He at least knows that much. A win in his final game, and Carolina will be crowned national champions. It's a rare opportunity for a senior college basketball player to know which game his his last; even rarer that it's on this stage.
"I think [assistant coach] C.B. (McGrath) said it," Hicks said Sunday. "We don't have to worry about practice the next day. We don't have to worry about nothing else, so why not just leave everything out there on the court?"
Why not, indeed?
Four years ago, he was in a similar situation. In his last high school game, Hicks poured in 34 points and had 30 rebounds to lead Oxford Webb to a 73-70 overtime victory in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association state 3-A Championship. His final game as a Warrior was legendary. In his final game as a Tar Heel, Isaiah Hicks needs to play like a warrior.