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A new ending for UNC’s Isaiah Hicks, who saved his Final Four best for last

UNC's Hicks: It is the best feeling I have ever felt

VIDEO: North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks talks about UNC's victory over Gonzaga in the NCAA Division I men's basketball national championship game at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ, Monday, April 3, 2017.
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VIDEO: North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks talks about UNC's victory over Gonzaga in the NCAA Division I men's basketball national championship game at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ, Monday, April 3, 2017.

In the North Carolina locker room Isaiah Hicks wore a net around his neck. The net had come from one of the baskets at University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Tar Heels won the national championship on Monday night with a 71-65 victory against Gonzaga.

UNC’s victory came amid a number of memorable stories. There was Joel Berry, the junior point guard, playing on two bad ankles, winning Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors. His No. 2 jersey is headed for the Smith Center rafters.

There was Justin Jackson, whose shooting touch left him giving the Tar Heels the lead for good in the final minutes with a three-point play, and then sealing the game with a dunk in the final seconds. There was another memorable defensive finish for UNC, delivering stop after stop late.

There was coach Roy Williams, winning his third national championship – one more than his mentor and beloved friend, Dean Smith. Williams said he was unworthy of any comparison to Smith. And then there was Hicks, the quiet 6-9 senior forward.

If there was one player even a non-basketball fan could find reason to support on Monday night, Hicks was as good of a choice as any. It’s easy to root for someone to rise above his failures, and Hicks had been playing poorly. Second, he’d long blamed himself for UNC’s loss against Villanova last year.

The Tar Heels on Monday were making their second consecutive appearance in the national championship game. Everyone remembers what happened during the first: the Marcus Paige shot to tie it, and then the Kris Jenkins 3-pointer, at the buzzer, to win it.

Jenkins’ shot immediately joined other famous ones in tournament lore. It is a shot whose memory will endure. And when people see pictures of that shot, or watch a replay of it, they see Jenkins going up, the ball in his hands, and they see Hicks, too, making one last desperate attempt to raise his hand.

Jenkins was not Hicks’ defensive assignment on that play. Jenkins was Brice Johnson’s man. But Johnson, the All-American forward, stayed back in the lane, defending against the possibility of penetration.

When Jenkins received the pass from Ryan Arcidiacono, Jenkins was a few feet behind the 3-point line on the right wing. He was open, unguarded. Hicks, seeing what was to come, made a move to try to get into position. It didn’t matter; he was too late. Jenkins went up, the shot went in, and that was it.

The Tar Heels dealt with that moment in their own ways. Roy Williams has never watched a replay of that game. Other players have. Paige, whose final college shot became one of the greatest that will ever be forgotten, watched the game alone in his parents’ basement months later.

Hicks, meanwhile, has seen the ending a bunch. Of all of UNC’s players, he might have at first taken the ending the hardest. He blamed himself. Hicks was the closest defender to Jenkins, so he blamed himself for not being there earlier to defend the play, even though it wasn’t his assignment.

Williams soon learned Hicks was blaming himself. Word was going around the team that Hicks felt responsible. So Williams last April did something he’d never done after a national championship loss: he called a press conference.

Williams that day said Steve Kirschner, UNC’s basketball sports information director, thought Williams was “wacko” for holding a press conference one week after losing the national championship game. No matter. Williams said one of the reasons he wanted to do this was for “closure.”

“But the other reason is we had a team meeting on Wednesday of last week,” Williams said then. “And I didn’t jump on them, but I disagreed with Isaiah. He took way too much responsibility. That shot was against North Carolina’s team.

“We graded the film, we gave Isaiah two good defenses during that one possession. But yet I read these comments about ‘I should’ve gotten up there, it was my guy.’ It was North Carolina’s team. But Isaiah, it was not his man. But he was willing to take that responsibility.”

Fast-forward one year. North Carolina is getting ready to play Oregon in a national semifinal in Glendale, Ariz. As it has countless times, the ending to last season comes up. Hicks is asked about it the day before another Final Four game.

Now he no longer blames himself. It still hurts, though. He knows how some of the pictures look, and how they’ll look forever: that Jenkins is making the shot over his outstretched hand. That Hicks is late. Hicks says he has found peace with those images. They no longer bother him.

“All they see is a picture of me trying to close out on Kris, not knowing he had an open shot,” Hicks says the day before the April 1 Oregon game. “Nobody was near him. I feel like everybody would have an opinion about anything, so that hasn’t bothered me, at all.”

That moment, a year ago, “has become easier now,” Hicks said. “I feel like we’ve been given a second chance. It’s all about taking advantage of it.”

He goes on to say that he came back to school for his moment. That when he met with Williams at the end of last season, Williams had Hicks’ NBA draft papers ready. Williams thought then that Hicks would at least go through the pre-draft process to receive feedback from NBA personnel.

Hicks tells the story of how he reacted to seeing those papers: He pushed them away.

So now the Oregon game. The Tar Heels prevail 77-76, thanks to its late offensive rebounding, but the game does not go well for Hicks. He plays 20 minutes. He misses 11 of his 12 attempts from the field. He finishes with only three rebounds.

At times, he looks lost, overwhelmed by the moment.

That sort of thing has happened to Hicks before. His very first college start came on Thanksgiving Day in the Bahamas, in 2014. UNC’s loss against Butler the previous day in the Battle 4 Atlantis left Williams seething, and wanting to change his starting lineup.

Williams benched Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks after the Butler loss, and put Joel James and Hicks into the starting lineup of the next game against UCLA. The Tar Heels beat the Bruins by 22. Hicks played well, scoring 10 points in 17 minutes.

The numbers in the box score only told part of the story. The part about how anxious he felt, how nervous he was to start his first college game, isn’t in there. This is what Hicks said after that game about starting for the first time:

“I was actually kind of anxious. And it kind of turned out bad, because I got super tired. And it was just a bad thing. … I had to come out and come back in. ... I felt horrible. I just think I worked myself up too much.”

That remained a challenge throughout his four years at UNC: working himself up too much. Becoming too caught up in the moment. The nerves, the anxiety, the pressure. And nowhere is the pressure greater than in the Final Four.

It’s Sunday, the day after the Oregon game, after the Tar Heels’ escape. Hicks is running late to his session with reporters. Nobody can blame him if he doesn’t want to be there. He knows what’s coming, everyone knows what’s coming: questions about what’s going on with him.

He hasn’t scored in double figures since the first round against Texas Southern. He has been missing shots at an alarming rate. He’d been benched in critical moments against Kentucky, and essentially absent against Oregon.

The questions are about his confidence and his mental state more than anything. This is what he says:

“Mentally, it’s just – next play. And 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 don’t go well, just keep trying.”

“I feel like a lot of my shots, you know, are good shots, they just didn’t go in.”

“I just hope to play the best but all you can do is try.”

That word - “try” - comes up over an over again: I’m trying, you’ve just got to try, I’ll keep trying.

Now it’s Monday, the national championship game. Hicks has gone four consecutive games scoring in single digits, his longest such streak of the season. He hasn’t appeared calm on this stage, and it’s another rough start against Gonzaga. He misses four of his first five shots from the field.

Finally he makes one with about 13 minutes remaining. It gives UNC a 44-43 lead. Fouled on the play, Hicks misses the free throw. Maybe seeing the ball go in helps him, because Hicks doesn’t miss another shot the rest of the night.

It takes a while before Hicks makes his next one, though. It gives UNC a 56-52 lead with about 6  ½  minutes remaining. And then his layup puts the Tar Heels ahead by four almost one minute later. With 26 seconds to play, comes perhaps the most important play of the game.

The Tar Heels are leading by one. They have possession. The shot clock is winding down. Everyone in the lower bowl of the stadium is standing up. Heart rates are rising by the second.

Across the nation and world, millions of people are tuned in. The ball finds its way to Hicks. Time is running out. Here is the player who was too anxious for his college start. Here is the guy who practically couldn’t make a shot for three halves on this floor, on this stage.

Hicks starts his move. He goes aggressively toward the basket. He releases a running shot, and it bounces off the backboard and through the rim and the Tar Heels’ lead is three with 26 seconds remaining. Later, this is what Williams will say:

“Isaiah, my boy has been struggling like a dog, but tonight he looked like a greyhound there a couple of times there at the end. Told him this morning, your last high school game you won the state championship.

“And he had like 34 points, 30 rebounds. I told him I would take that tonight. He didn’t really give that to us, but he was big for us and made a couple of big, big baskets down the stretch.”

North Carolina finds redemption after last years' last-second loss to Villanova with a 71-65 win over the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

None more so than the one with 26 seconds remaining. About 10 seconds later, Meeks blocks a shot and Berry passes ahead and Justin Jackson finishes with a dunk that gives the Tar Heels a five-point lead. Then there’s a turnover and a foul, and Berry heads to the free throw line with seven seconds left.

That’s when the reality starts to set in: The Tar Heels are going to finish this. They’re going to be the national champions. The photographers start making pictures, looking for celebratory moments. There’s one picture that stands out maybe more than the rest.

In it, Jackson is holding his fists up. He looks jubilant, like he’s screaming. Berry is clutching the ball after he’s fouled. He looks like a marathon runner about to cross the finish line. In the background is Hicks. He has his hands on his head. He looks like he can’t believe it.

Hicks is not the focal point of this image, just like he wasn’t the focal point of the pictures last year of Jenkins’ shot. In that one, the eyes go to Jenkins, and his release, but there’s Hicks, his hand up. In this one, the eyes go first to Jackson, then to Berry, and there’s Hicks, his hands on top of his head in the backcourt.

About seven seconds later, it’s over. And maybe 15 minutes after that, Hicks is telling his story.

“The biggest thing was, was just to try,” he says.

VIDEO: North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks talks about UNC's victory over Gonzaga in the NCAA Division I men's basketball national championship game at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ, Monday, April 3, 2017.

UNC is cutting down one net. Hicks is wearing the other around his neck. He’s talking about second chances: “Regardless of what happens, all you can do is try.” He’s talking about the final shot: “I just willed my way to the rim, and it went in.”

A year earlier, the image of Hicks jumping in Jenkins’ direction became frozen in time. In those pictures, he’ll forever be hanging there, Jenkins’ shot rising over him.

Now there’s a new ending for him, one year later, another moment frozen: Jackson screaming, Berry walking with a look of triumph, Hicks with his hands over his head, an expression of disbelief while the reality first starts to set in that he’s about to win a national championship.

University of North Carolina players celebrate with Tar Heel fans on the floor after receiving the NCAA National Championship trophy.

University of North Carolina coach Roy Williams and players Isaiah Hicks, Joel Berry and Theo Pinson talks with reporters following their national championship win over Gonzaga.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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