Inside the North Carolina locker room on Thursday afternoon, Joel Berry, the junior point guard, was trying to put into words how often he and his teammates tell Isaiah Hicks that he needs to stop fouling. But you know Hicks, Berry said, referring to Hicks’ calm, casual demeanor.
“You can say something to him,” Berry said, “he’s just going to laugh. But we’re actually serious about it. We’re like, ‘Isaiah – we need you on the court. Like, you’ve got to stop fouling.’ ”
Of all the questions UNC faced entering the postseason, perhaps the two most critical were these: Can Hicks keep his fouls in check and remain on the court long enough to make a difference? And can the Tar Heels rediscover their on-again, off-again defensive mojo – that urgency they often seek?
UNC’s 78-53 victory against Miami at the Barclays Center in the ACC tournament quarterfinals is a small sample size. It’s only one game in what UNC hopes will be an nine-game run to the final Monday night of the season.
For 40 minutes, though, the Tar Heels, and Hicks, authoritatively answered those questions in the affirmative. Hicks, who led UNC with 19 points, played one of his finest games of the season, and the performance came not long after he “had a talk,” he said, with UNC coach Roy Williams.
Hicks said Williams advised him to simply “play the game,” which is Hicks’ way of saying that Williams encouraged him to block out the external noise – the pressure of the moment, the pressure of greater expectations – that sometimes has derailed Hicks.
The past two games, though, Hicks has scored a combined 40 points. He is in the midst of his most productive two-game stretch since mid-January.
His reemergence couldn’t come at a better time for the Tar Heels (27-6), who will play against Duke – for the third time this season – in the tournament semifinals on Friday night. UNC’s best chance against the Blue Devils, and beyond, is for Hicks to continue to be at his best.
The Tar Heels need the Thursday version of Hicks, and not the Hicks who, in 10 games this season, has failed to score more than eight points. When Hicks labors to score, it’s often because he’s on the bench, hampered by foul trouble. In his past two games, though, he’s committed only three fouls.
By now, UNC usually knows what it will get out of Justin Jackson, the ACC Player of the Year. Berry, meanwhile, is arguably the Tar Heels’ most important player, given his role of directing the offense and leading the defense on the perimeter.
Hicks is UNC’s greatest mystery. And yet it was clear enough what he meant to UNC on Thursday.
“Another weapon,” Jackson said. “Just another weapon, and a weapon inside. So when you have it inside and outside, it makes it a little bit easier for everybody. And so I think Isaiah really – he played extremely strong, was extremely aggressive, and when he plays like that we’re a much better team.”
Hicks’ effectiveness on the interior allowed UNC to neutralize Miami’s zone defense. Berry, Theo Pinson and others often lobbed passes to Hicks on the inside, where more often than not he freed himself for layups or dunks.
Hicks’ production on Thursday continued an obvious, but significant, trend: When he avoids fouls, he’s an integral part of UNC’s offense. In the 19 games in which he’s finished with three fouls or fewer, Hicks is averaging nearly 15 points. With four fouls or more, Hicks is averaging 7.6 points per game.
“I thought Isaiah was active,” Williams said. “We needed to get the ball inside. We needed to do a better job in the paint … But Isaiah was huge for us.”
Hicks was one reason the Tar Heels left the Barclays Center with a sense of optimism. The other: their defense, which resembled the maniacal, frenzied style of defense the Tar Heels played throughout last March, when they became a team capable of winning the national championship.
About five minutes in on Thursday, UNC appeared to increase its urgency against Miami (21-11). Suddenly, the Hurricanes found themselves hounded, and during one 3½ minute stretch in the first half when UNC began to take control, Miami committed three turnovers. That was just “a glimpse,” Berry said.
The real defensive pressure arrived in the second half, when UNC held Miami to 30 percent shooting. The Tar Heels, whose lead grew as large as 27 points, outscored the Hurricanes by 20 during the final 20 minutes.
“We can score the ball with any team in the country,” Berry said, “but it’s all about, ‘Can you sit down and guard a team and defend and not let them score?’ ”
UNC could, and did, on Thursday. At times the performance resembled what the Tar Heels did around a year ago at this time against Pittsburgh. UNC dismantled the Panthers in the ACC tournament quarterfinals last season, and in some ways that victory served as a catalyst.
Berry remembers it well. So do his teammates who were around to experience it.
Looking back after last season, that first ACC tournament victory felt like a new beginning. And this victory, on Thursday, felt a little bit like that one, when the Tar Heels began to turn questions into answers like they did against Miami.
Duke vs. UNC
When: 7 p.m. Friday
TV: WRAL, ESPN