Isaiah Hicks, the unlikely hero, leads North Carolina to title-game win

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — The coldest man in college basketball was the hero on Monday night.

North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks had missed 15 of the first 17 shots that he took in the Final Four. He made the last four, including a basket with 25 seconds left on the clock to give North Carolina a 68-65 lead. One possession earlier, with 1:25 left in the game, Gonzaga’s star point guard and all-american Nigel Williams-Goss rolled his right ankle. On the ensuing possession, after the Zags used a time out, he missed a pull-up jumper and after Hicks bucket, Williams-Goss had a shot blocked by Kennedy Meeks. On the previous two possessions, Williams-Goss had scored.

North Carolina would go on to win 71-65, earning a national title almost a year to the day after they had their hearts broken by Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating, title-winning three.

“It felt like last game I was trying and nothing was going in. Everybody was saying I was frustrated; thought I was frustrated and everything,” Hicks said. “But I really wanted it. It’s all about the next thing. And tonight I just really wanted to get after it.”

The story of the game ended up being the referees. There were 43 fouls called on the night, 26 of them coming in the second half. Both teams were in the bonus with 14 minutes left in the second half, a half where there were 23 fouls called in the first 15 minutes and every big man on the floor played their way into foul trouble. It took all the rhythm out of the game and played a pretty big role in why neither team was able to find a groove offensively. At one point, with seven minutes left in the half, the two teams had combined to shoot 11-for-42 from the floor.

“It’s a very difficult game to call. I’m sitting over there, I’m not thinking the officials are doing a terrible job. I swear to goodness, that’s not what I’m thinking. I’m thinking our offense stinks,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said. “I mean, serious. I told them don’t worry about what the referee is doing, he missed a call, but, my God, we missed four free throws in a row, missed layups. So we were at fault just as much as anybody else.”

Hicks changed the game in the second half. He had spent the first 60 minutes of the Final Four playing abysmal basketball, shooting 2-for-17 from the floor while shooting with the kind of confidence that Karl Malone with have. Three minutes into the second half, he committed an awful turnover that ended an 8-0 North Carolina run and set the Zags up for an 8-0 run of their own, a surge that ended what felt like a game-changing swing of momentum at the start of the second half.

But Hicks finally found the rhythm down the stretch. He had three huge buckets midway through the half, a stretch where North Carolina’s offense went ice cold, and scored the bucket to put the Tar Heels up three with 25 seconds left.

“Isaiah made, I think, I don’t have the stat — I have a stat sheet but I don’t have play-by-play. Things have been swirling around,” Williams said. “But, I think Isaiah made two big baskets in the last three minutes. And I think that that was just a youngster willing the ball in the hole, because he had stunk it up for the last couple of weeks most of the time.”

Josh Perkins was averaging 5.2 points and shooting 34.8 percent from the floor in the first five games of the NCAA tournament, but his play buoyed Gonzaga in the first half, scoring 13 points — more than he’s scored in any game since Feb. 23rd, a total he eclipsed just twice since Christmas — and helping Gonzaga jump out to an early nine-point lead, but the Zags, overall, did not play all that well in the first 20 minutes. They entered the break up just 35-32 despite the fact that Berry and Jackson combined to shoot just 5-for-16 from the floor; Jackson was 0-for-6 from three.

As a team, the Tar Heels posted their second-worst shooting first half of the season at 30.6 percent; the loser was their blowout loss at Miami in February.

“26-for-73, you’re not going to win many games; 57 percent from the free-throw line you’re not going to win many games,” Jackson said. “But those last three minutes I think we made plays that ended up calling the game. And for us we’re just happy we came out on top, and this is an amazing feeling.”

North Carolina did, however, win the battle of the big men in the first half, as both Karnowski and Collins picked up two fouls in the first 20 minutes. Karnowski went 0-for-4 in the half, turning the ball over three times, while Collins lasted all of eight minutes before getting into foul trouble. Meeks, fresh off his 25-point, 14-rebound performance against Oregon in the Final Four, had just four points and five boards and Hicks’ struggles continued, as he went 1-for-5 in the half, but getting the Gonzaga bigs out of the game is what opened up the offensive glass and allowed UNC to get back into the game. The Tar Heels had three offensive boards in the first 16 minutes; they had five in the final four and took the lead back within the first 30 seconds of the second half.