Starters Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks initially had trouble establishing a rhythm in the paint. UNC’s post tandem combined for just eight first-half points as the Wolfpack’s long and athletic back line made it difficult.
Enter Hicks. In the first half, the 6-foot-8 forward was Carolina’s leading post scorer with 8 points on 4-of-4 shooting. In total, Hicks finished with 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting in 21 minutes.
“Isaiah set the tone and showed us the formula,” UNC point guard Marcus Paige told reporters following the game. “When he came in on his first substitution, he posted up strong, he ran the floor and he got some easy baskets just from being big inside.”
Johnson and Meeks followed Hicks’s lead and in the second half combined for 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting.
After the slow start, Carolina’s front line put on a dominating performance. In the second half, Meeks, Johnson and Hicks shot 64.2 percent on 9-of-14 shooting. By the time the final horn had sounded, the three forwards had combined for 37 points on17-of-27 shooting.
“We like to play inside out,” Paige said. “(Isaiah) did it, Kennedy followed suit and we started getting some baskets inside and pounding the ball inside because that’s one of strengths. It was really Isaiah that gave us a big lift going 6-for-7 from the floor.”
Hicks entered Wednesday’s rivalry matchup averaging 6.6 points in 13.9 minutes per game this season. He’s shown flashes of his potential, albeit in limited spurts. Against the Wolfpack, however, he made a tangible impact in a critical road win for the Tar Heels.
“It’s the ACC,” Hicks said. “Nothing is going to be given to you. You have to go out there and give it your all because one play off might cost you.”
Johnson fouled out with 5:09 to play and UNC leading by nine, forcing Hicks to log the majority of the minutes at the four down the stretch, save for some offense-for-defense switching with Justin Jackson late. He delivered a critical play in the final minute, tipping a defensive rebound to Paige with 35 seconds to play.
His early spark, however, was critical for UNC’s success down low.
“Isaiah was 6-for-7, you like that, that’s for sure,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “… He works awfully hard. I think making some big plays offensively early was good.”
Hicks Provides Spark
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