North Carolina

Isaiah Hicks provides spark in UNC's victory against NC State

N.C. State’s Kyle Washington (32) and UNC’s Isaiah Hicks (22) and Nate Britt (0) go after a loose ball during on Wednesday.
N.C. State’s Kyle Washington (32) and UNC’s Isaiah Hicks (22) and Nate Britt (0) go after a loose ball during on Wednesday. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Isaiah Hicks sounded almost bashful afterward, standing in the locker room surrounded by reporters while he tried to describe the best game of his college career - a performance that was instrumental in North Carolina's 81-79 victory against N.C. State.

Did Hicks, who finished with 12 points and made six of his seven shots from the field, feel like his confidence blossomed as time went on? That he provided a spark off the bench?

He smiled shyly, and nodded, and then spoke softly.

"I think so," he said.

His teammates were more assertive.

Across the locker room a ways Marcus Paige, the junior guard, had just finished raving about Hicks, the 6-foot-8 sophomore forward who arrived last season as a heralded recruit but who has taken a while to find his place. He seems now to be finding it.

"Isaiah set the tone and showed us the formula," Paige said about the Tar Heels' success on the interior, where they outscored the Wolfpack 38-24. "When he came in, his first substitution, he posted up strong. He ran the floor and he got some easy baskets, just from being big inside."

For the second consecutive season, the UNC-N.C. State game in Raleigh will be remembered for its dramatic finish and it will be remembered for the play of Paige, who finished with 23 points, nine assists and no turnovers.

And indeed, it wasn't decided until the Wolfpack missed a last-second tip-in as time expired and, indeed, Paige was, in the words of coach Roy Williams, "sensational." But for now the game could be remembered as another step forward in Hicks' development.

He entered for the first time with 15 minutes, 58 seconds to play in the first half. Fifteen seconds later, he'd scored his first points on a short jumper. Late in the first half, Hicks made three consecutive shots from the field - a layup, a dunk, and then another jumper - while UNC built a six-point halftime lead.

For Hicks, it was a continuation of what he did, in moments, during the Tar Heels' victory against Louisville over the weekend. In that game, another close Tar Heels victory, Hicks finished with six points and four rebounds in 13 minutes.

"Last game he was a beast, this game he was a beast," Kennedy Meeks, the sophomore forward, said of Hicks. "His confidence is there, man. I think he's really on right now. He's really at the top of his game. He's really been impressive right now.

"He's demanding the ball, hitting quick shots. Everything."

Hicks' energy, and production, was one of the main reasons for the Tar Heels' overall success on the interior. He wasn't the only bright spot down low, either.

Meeks finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds and made seven of his 15 attempts from the field. And Brice Johnson, the junior forward who was plagued by foul trouble on Wednesday night, finished with 10 points and seven rebounds.

Williams hesitated when asked whether this was the Tar Heels' most complete, balanced offensive performance. He said he'd have difficulty remembering what he had for breakfast, let alone how what his team did on Wednesday night compared to other performances.

And statistically, there might have been more impressive inside-out games for UNC this season. Paige, though, said it was "definitely" among the Tar Heels' best.

"That's the good balance that you like to see," Paige said. "And when we do that, I think we're really tough."

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