With North Carolina’s season in imminent danger of ending prematurely, the Tar Heels’ quietest player made the loudest noise.
Down five to Arkansas with less than four minutes to play, two seniors spoke in the huddle. Kennedy Meeks did, which was typical, but so did Isaiah Hicks, which was not.
While Hicks is more of a talker on the court than he was in his first three years at North Carolina, he hasn’t changed much away from it. He still, in his fourth postseason, prefers the comfort of his hotel room when the team is on the road. On the Tar Heels’ now-famous group text, titled “Redemption,” Hicks participates the least of any of the team’s key players.
So when Hicks started to talk, that got everyone’s attention.
“It can’t end like this,” Hicks said. “We just gotta do something.”
That was the crux of it: North Carolina’s players had come too far to end here. Fueled for 11 months by the memory of 4.8 seconds that slipped away from them, they were still a long way from redemption and their chance was slipping away from them with a lot more than 4.8 seconds left in the tournament.
They knew they might not get that close to the national title again, but they expected to get a lot closer than this. They knew it wasn’t supposed to end like this before Hicks said it, but coming from him, it meant something.
“We know Isaiah, he’s more of a quiet guy, but when you see a guy like that so passionate about not wanting his season to end, it makes you not want to disappoint your teammates,” Theo Pinson said.
So the Tar Heels went out, turned up the defense and ripped off a 12-0 run to close out a 72-65 win. It was actually about that simple. Arkansas went into a stall trying to hold onto that five-point lead and all of a sudden the Tar Heels were denying everything, leaving the Razorbacks with contested bad shots late in the shot clock.
That’s the same position the Tar Heels had been in since the end of the first half, with Arkansas pressuring the wings and taking North Carolina out of its offense entirely, as bad as the Tar Heels looked at Virginia. A 17-point lead evaporated as Roy Williams ran out of offensive options – until assistant C.B. McGrath suggested a play out of a late timeout, and Jackson fed Hicks on a slipscreen for an easy dunk that brought the Tar Heels within one.
Two Hicks free throws put North Carolina in the lead, and then the game’s strangest play turned in the Tar Heels’ favor. Joel Berry, driving down the right side of the lane, collided with two Arkansas players. It was either a block, a travel or a charge, in that order, but the whistles stayed completely silent. Berry, stumbling, threw the ball at the rim. Meeks tipped it in to put North Carolina up 68-65. Arkansas had nothing left.
The Tar Heels, down five with less than three minutes to play and looking entirely bereft of hope, won by seven.
“Inside the four-minute TV timeout, I think, it was 3:47 to play, I told our guys we hadn’t won one like this all year long,” Williams said.
“Tonight,” Pinson said, echoing his coach, “what a perfect time to win one.”
It was good timing for the ACC, too, which desperately needed to reverse its tournament momentum. A year after going 12-1 during the first weekend, the ACC was 6-7 going into Sunday evening’s games, and after Duke’s loss to South Carolina, North Carolina is the only ACC team standing.
At best, the ACC will make $11.2 million less than last season, and that’s if North Carolina advances to the title game.
So it’s up to North Carolina now, if any ACC team is going to make noise over the next two weeks, and if not for the Tar Heels’ quietest player speaking up, the ACC might have been shut out completely.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock