Isaiah Hicks walked off the floor feeling as low as possible after last year’s National Championship game, but he had his redeeming moment Monday night as North Carolina claimed the national title.
GLENDALE, Ariz. – Lost in North Carolina’s fairytale redemption tour is the story of Isaiah Hicks, the Tar Heel who with an extra fraction of a second and some longer fingernails could’ve blocked the most infamous shot in program history.
Hicks stood closer than any of his teammates to Villanova’s confetti-drenched celebration immediately after Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer splashed through the net to end last year’s national championship game. As much as North Carolina needed to return to the title game this season, Hicks needed a moment all his own.
And not just because of last year. Hicks struggled throughout this NCAA Tournament, to put it lightly. His numbers over his previous four Tournament games: 6.0 points per game, 9 of 29 from the field, 6 of 13 from the free throw line, 11 rebounds, seven turnovers.
Roy Williams summed up that stat line bluntly: “He had stunk it up for the last couple of weeks most of the time.”
But not Monday night. Hicks found himself with the ball and North Carolina draining clock holding a one-point lead over Gonzaga and less than 30 seconds remaining. He drove to his right, cupped it his right hand and stretched his arm toward the basket. He seemingly hung in mid-air for a couple seconds, then pushed the ball off the backboard and in with 21.9 seconds left.
It marked the biggest shot of the senior’s career. The Bulldogs committed a turnover on the ensuing possession, leading to Justin Jackson’s dunk that iced the Tar Heels’ 71-65 win that gave Williams his third national championship.
Hicks finished with 13 points and nine rebounds. And his teammates knew all along he had it in him.
“Everybody still had faith in me,” Hicks said. “Everybody was always encouraging me.
“It’s so surreal. I had to pinch myself one time.”
Given the tighter whistles in the second half, the referees might’ve called a foul on Hicks for that pinch. Hicks and fellow big man Kennedy Meeks played a good portion of the second half with three fouls, but Hicks didn’t see the need for anything to change after picking up that third infraction.
Hicks looked at Williams, gave him a thumbs-up and made clear that he wanted to remain in the game.
“I listened to him,” Williams said. “I left him in.”
Good thing. Hicks wasn’t going to leave the floor after the national championship game dejected like last year. He wasn’t going to let a little foul trouble cut short the best game he’s had in weeks. Williams showing the confidence to keep him in the game led to the floating layup that put all the pressure on Gonzaga.
“I wasn’t going to miss this chance with these guys,” Hicks said. “I felt like when I was out there I was doing everything I can.”
Hicks’ hanging runner won’t ever be remembered like the shot Jenkins hit over him in Houston last year, and it probably won’t get much air time after the initial game recaps and highlight reels this year. But that bucket and his determination to overcome his struggles provided enough redemption to last a lifetime.
“I think that was just a youngster willing the ball in the hole,” Williams said.
And it gave Hicks the moment he deserved.
“It’s a complete 180 from last year. It’s hard to describe it.”