Yes, Roy Williams said on Tuesday, he did remember the play. Two years later he could still see it: the clock winding down at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, North Carolina with a chance to tie the score in overtime, the ball in Isaiah Hicks’ hands in the lane, open.
Williams might not have remembered what he said after that 92-90 loss at Duke in 2015. So here’s a reminder of how he reacted to that moment – Hicks holding the ball, the seconds ticking away:
“He just didn’t realize how open he was. He could have taken one bounce and dunked the ball, probably.”
Instead Hicks passed to J.P. Tokoto, who missed a shot on the baseline. Game over.
It was only one play, and Williams on Tuesday warned not to read too much into it. And yet few plays over Hicks’ four years are better illustrative of his journey from those too-timid days years ago to where he is now, among the centerpieces of the Tar Heels’ offense.
Hicks, the Tar Heels’ 6-10 senior forward, reflected on Tuesday. He’ll be back in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday night for another UNC-Duke game, his fourth and final one in Durham, and he remembered it, too – freezing in the lane in overtime during his sophomore year.
Hicks seemed bashful about it. He sounded almost embarrassed.
“Compared to now to then, I would have shot that shot – no hesitation,” he said. “Then it was just being in a (difficult) environment, stuff like that, and I was still in the phase of being the deer in the headlights.”
That phase, it turned out, lasted awhile. Hicks arrived at UNC in 2013 amid considerable hype. He’d been an all-state player at Webb High in Oxford, the No. 1 high school prospect in North Carolina. Others with similar accolades might have arrived in college with an inflated sense of confidence.
Hicks had the opposite problem, though. For four years, his teammates and coaches have had to remind him of how good he can be. It was something else during his freshman and sophomore years when, homesick, he often traveled back home on weekends. College seemed to overwhelm him.
Take, for instance, the first time Hicks started a game at UNC. It came in the Bahamas, in the Battle 4 Atlantis, early into his sophomore season.
“I started him three times the first three years, and he about had a heart attack every game I started him,” Williams said. “So we had to wait until he got through that. In the Bahamas, he runs over there, and I thought he was dying. I’m looking for a surgeon to get him to calm down.”
Hicks shook his head at the memory, smiling a little. He spoke of “getting too excited.”
And then there was the anxiety and everything that came with the nerves. Like fouls, for instance.
“It was just me psyching myself out,” Hicks said.
It has taken Hicks a long time to reach a point of comfort, and confidence.
How long, exactly? He didn’t need long to answer on Tuesday.
“It seemed like it took three or four years,” he said. “So I would say that’s a very long process.”
Look at him now. During UNC’s past nine games, Hicks is averaging 14.2 points and 6.2 rebounds. Both of those totals are above his season averages. Entering Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday night, Hicks is expected to be an important part of the Tar Heels’ plans.
If, that is, he remains free of foul trouble. He has recently, anyway. During Hicks’ past seven games, he’s collected more than three fouls only once – and he finished UNC’s victory against Syracuse on Jan. 16 without committing any fouls at all.
That had only happened once earlier this season, and once last season. Some of his teammates seemed incredulous that Hicks, so prone to “silly fouls,” as Williams likes to say, had played 30 minutes without a single foul.
“That’s crazy, man,” Kennedy Meeks, the Tar Heels other starting senior forward, told Hicks after the Syracuse game.
“Zero,” Hicks said, repeating his foul total. “Zero!”
“That’s wild,” Meeks said. “That’s crazy. I can’t believe that.”
As improbable as it was to finish a game without a foul, playing at least 30 minutes in consecutive games might have been even more of an accomplishment for Hicks. And yet he did that, too, during UNC’s victories against Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.
It was the first time in his four seasons that Hicks had played that many minutes in consecutive games. And it will be critical, again, on Thursday that he remain on the court at Duke, where Hicks could create a mismatch in UNC’s favor if the Blue Devils decide to use a smaller lineup.
“If he’s just aggressive when he gets the ball, it’s just hard for the defense to guard him,” said Justin Jackson, the Tar Heels’ junior forward. “I mean, he’s so quick and strong inside, and his athletic ability – for him to be able to finish above the rim – it’s big.”
Hicks still hears it from his teammates and coaches, he said. They still remind him of how good he can be. Only difference now is Hicks has reached a point where he seems to believe it.
Come Thursday he could well find himself in the same kind of position he was two years ago: time running short, the Tar Heels in need of points, the ball in his hands. Don’t expect Hicks to pass this time.
UNC at Duke
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham